It goes without saying that there’s an enormous amount riding on Arsenal’s FA Cup semi-final clash with Wigan this weekend.
Like the now cliché saying that Arsenal’s next transfer window will be the biggest and most important in Arsene Wenger’s tenure at the club, this game has equal importance riding on it – importance that goes further than just breaking that trophy hoodoo.
Arsenal are down to the bare bones. The squad has been decimated by injury, and bar a not-quite-fully-fit Aaron Ramsey, it’s difficult to see where Arsenal’s match winner will come from. The very fact that Wigan’s recent run of form has crept into the discussion among Arsenal supporters is telling of just how much trepidation there is going into this game. A team who only last month drew against Bayern Munich in Germany and who led the Premier League for much of this season are sweating over the form of a Championship team. It’s bordering on the ludicrous. It’s just like Arsenal.
But that fear is justified. The immediate response is to assume another implosion, such as the one suffered against Birmingham in the 2011 League Cup final, is on the cards. Once again, Wenger’s team were dealing with a hugely inferior side, one that would actually go on to be relegated that season. And yet Arsenal came undone, in colossally humiliating fashion.
Whether it’s a team on the brink of relegation or a giant of European football, Arsenal simply can’t handle the pressure of games such as this. The loss at home to Bayern Munich said as much, with the confidence of the team hanging by a thread, only to lose all sense of purpose following Mesut Ozil’s penalty miss.
Arsene Wenger may speak of the spirit in the Arsenal dressing and dismiss recent losses as mistakes or accidents, but even with team captains backing up the manager in the suggestion that the team will bounce back (whether its sooner or later isn’t always clarified), the truth is that large sections of the support don’t hold faith in this group of players that they can get the job done.
It’s not an act of failing to support one’s team. Even those fortune enough to back clubs like Bayern Munich or Barcelona will feel some sense of anxiety at one point or another; it’s simply the nature of football. But the feeling among Arsenal supporters is that a devastating defeat is imminent. The team’s form suggests as much, going back further than this season. Arsenal discriminate against no one when it comes to blunders of huge proportion. Last season’s horror showings against Bradford and Blackburn in both cup competitions remain fresh in the memory.
If Arsenal slip up against Wigan, it could have ramifications on Wenger’s future with the club. Many supporters are of the opinion that it should decide Wenger’s fate. It’s why a win is so important for the club, for those at boardroom level who need a reprieve in the debate on Wenger’s new contract. A win – and the subsequent lifting of the FA Cup – will give the club some leverage in convincing supporters that Wenger’s immediate future lies in north London.
With a squad low on morale and lacking key players all over the pitch, it will need a monumental play from Wenger to turn this game in Arsenal’s favour. The problem is his unwillingness to change. The problem is the lack of belief that this team can produce.