Monday, January 24, 2022

Arsene Wenger’s selection balancing act on what will be an emotional day at the Emirates

Just three home games remain this season and after Friday’s announcement I suspect the Emirates Stadium will be fuller than it might have been otherwise. Not because Arsenal v West Ham is all of a sudden a game everyone is interested in again, but because the news of Arsene Wenger’s departure has acted like a kind of salve and the frustration that has been felt so acutely has been soothed.

It will be interesting to hear what he has to say in his media engagements before and after the game. Even after 48 hours, lots of writing and lots of talking, it remains the most seismic event in the club’s history since the sacking of George Graham, and I don’t think even that comes close.

I think it will be emotional for him, for fans, and for the players. They’ve paid tribute to the man who bought them, has coached them and picked them for so long, and that’s something they need to bear in mind not just for today but for what remains of this campaign – especially Europe.

It’s always very difficult to measure the influence of intangibles, but a real sense of purpose, a desire to make something happen not just for yourself but somebody else, may well have an influence on how they perform. Every player wants to win every time they go out onto the pitch, but something extra – be it in an individual or a group – can make the fine margins of football matches even more so.

Then there are the practicalities of today. It’s impossible to preview this game without an eye on next week when Atletico Madrid come to town for the first leg of our Europa League semi-final. There’s a balancing act required here, because Wenger will want to bounce back from last Sunday’s defeat to Newcastle, and go into Thursday’s game on the back of a win.

Ensuring his players are fully match fit and sharp will be part of his thinking, but at the same time he’s got to ensure that key men are available for that game. Even a short term injury can now end a player’s season, so he has to decide who is indispensable for Europe and then weigh up whether he can use them today or not.

If it were me, I’d err so far on the side of caution I’d have the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Hector Bellerin, Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, and even Granit Xhaka, wrapped in cotton wool. Then some bubble wrap too. If we are to beat the Spanish side we’re going to need them, and we need them fully fit. At this point of the season I don’t know that playing in one game will make a huge difference to their sharpness or touch or anything else, but one kick, one muscle strain, one injury could put paid to their participation for a match that really means a lot to the club.

If that means a slightly under-strength side today, so be it. If it elicits a below-par performance, that’s fine. At this point criticism of how we play in the Premier League is essentially redundant, and it would also be another good opportunity to give some young players a chance.

Let’s see Ainsley Maitland-Niles deputise for Bellerin; give Joe Willock another go in midfield, but perhaps in a more natural position than we did last week, with the added benefit of playing in familiar surroundings; and lets have another look at the hugely talented Reiss Nelson in one of the wide attacking positions. If the remit of any new manager is to ensure that young players are brought through from the academy, what we can do now to help some of them establish themselves a bit would be beneficial.

Whatever team he selects though, today will be a strange day. There are many, for generational reasons, who have known an Arsenal without Arsene Wenger, and even for those of us who have seen managers come and go in the past, the long-term relationship with the Frenchman is one which has covered a significant part of our lives. The idea of him not being there next season – that it will be someone else in the technical area and all the rest – is still a bit surreal and there’s no doubt that will be a big part of today.

If you can’t see the game, you can follow it on our live blog, which will have up to the second live text commentary, as well as all the post-match reaction and everything else over on Arseblog News.

Let’s see what today brings, catch you later on for the game.

ps – Sp*rs


pps – If you still haven’t had a chance to listen to Friday evening’s podcast reacting to the big news, all the links you need are here.

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