Arsène Wenger calls for show of pride as Arsenal face daunting task
Manager likely to recall Alexis Sánchez as Gunners chase 5-1 deficit against Bayern
Arsene Wenger shakes hands with striker Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground ahead of their Champions League last 16 second leg tie against Bayern Munich. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty
Arsène Wenger is calling for Arsenal to come out feeling lucid rage against Bayern Munich in the Champions League tonight. The Germans won handsomely in the first leg and bring a 5-1 lead to London.
Lucid rage, for Wenger, equates to a mixture of clear thinking and controlled anger about their predicament. What he is looking for is “total commitment –but not a silly one because you always have to make intelligent decisions”.
Given Arsenal’s propensity to make mistakes and the lack of feeling ready for big games their own players have referenced, a surge of desire and concentration would require sudden improvement.
Arsenal will be without Mesut Özil and the position of Alexis Sánchez –a frenzied topic since he was omitted from the starting lineup at Liverpool – remains tantalisingly loose.
Wenger is expected to return him to the frontline but remained coy as he tried to play down reports of arguments and explosive behaviour at the training ground. He describes his relationship with Arsenal’s star performer as “honest and normal, like with every single player”.
He did acknowledge the striker’s body language has been excessive at times.
“Excessive commitment is maybe sometimes when he shows [Wenger threw his arms up in the air to demonstrate] on the pitch. It’s always interpreted he’s not happy but it could be interpreted he wants everyone to be with him. When it doesn’t go well these things are interpreted negatively.”
Sánchez had his own say with a cryptic Instagram post.
“The true warrior fights not because he hates the ones in front of him, but because he loves them behind him. Let’s go Gunners. The only failure is not trying.” The quote was from GK Chesterton.
“Nothing happened. Nothing at all,” Wenger said, attempting to divert attention on to that lucid rage he is after.
It says something about modern Arsenal that ructions – be it players and managers giving each other a mouthful or team-mates squaring up to tell one another some home truths – were far more commonplace in the most successful period of Arsène Wenger’s era than in the period spent off the trophy pace.
That older generation of players would recognise a bit of friction as a necessary part of the atmosphere within a winning squad.
In the days before mega salaries and social media, the odd row was part of the fabric of the team. As Campbell recalls: “It would boil over, properly boil over, at the training ground from time to time. But that’s normal. You can’t just have it all-singing all-dancing, tickety-boo. That’s not going to work. You need to find out who is around you.”
Make no mistake, this has been a rough few weeks for Arsenal with galling defeats against Watford, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Liverpool and perhaps it is not so surprising that a few tempers have erupted.
Per Mertesacker’s assessment of recent weeks was piercingly candid.
“We saw on a lot of occasions that we were absolutely not ready for a fight, and that’s what I want to see – that we are up for a fight, to challenge something,” he said. “We haven’t competed a lot in recent games, we need to turn that around. That is really the focus.”
To be absolutely not ready to fight is a strong accusation to lay at Champions League regulars with aspirations to do the best they can around the top handful of the Premier League.
Mertesacker described the current atmosphere as tense and it seems that the environment and expectations make it difficult for the team to play in a relaxed way.
Wenger said: “Football is not only about fight. Yes, it is part of it, but not just that. It’s also the freedom to go for it, the freedom to play. We have to earn our freedom to play because at the moment we play a little bit with the handbrake.
“We live in a world of small margins and if you drop off a little bit it’s down to belief. On the confidence front, it always looks like you do not want to fight, but these players want to do well and I believe that 100 per cent.”
It is a noble belief but taking the step between wanting to do well and doing well is critical.
It makes for a challenging circumstance before a Champions League game against an excellent Bayern and a salvation mission that Wenger rates as virtually impossible. He gives his team a “1-2 per cent chance” of producing the miracle required to win 4-0 or by an even greater margin if they concede more than one along the way.
Wenger described the mood as a “difficult climate”. With players feeling the heat, the club’s future racked with uncertainty while the manager considers his next move over the contract extension, the poor form and the Sánchez question clouding the landscape, Arsenal cannot focus on much beyond just picking themselves up, dusting themselves down and trying to feel a bit better about themselves.
That 5-1 collapse at the Allianz Arena was one of Wenger’s most disappointing nights in Europe.
“It’s a shock to take,” he said. The loss of Laurent Koscielny to an injury early in the game robbed Arsenal of any defensive composure and from there they buckled. This habit of having whole halves of football that are well below par has been extremely costly.
“You can miss 45 minutes and we paid for it,” Wenger said. “So we have to show 90 minutes of commitment. We finished top of the group, PSG finished second and they beat Barcelona 4-0. Why? Because Barcelona missed their game [in Paris] completely. Everything is a negative at the moment. Basically, the teams that have gone out in the group stage are happy, but we have gone through and we are in crisis.”
Regaining some pride against Bayern would be a stepping stone and Sánchez is expected to be back in the starting line-up. Whatever the turbulence, it is hard to argue that Arsenal are better off without the player who has provided the most this season in terms of goal-making and taking.
That said, Wenger wants the team to be the story, not any individual.
“You have to accept that a team is made up of 25 different personalities. So I don’t want people to change. I just want them on board to achieve something together.”