It doesn’t seem to take much to make the impending dark clouds of a crisis circle above Arsenal these days, but following their exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Blackburn Rovers during the weekend, supporters’ frustration is hardly without justification this time around.
The anger that spewed out of the Emirates following their 1-0 defeat to Michael Appleton’s side was, as Arsene Wenger insinuated himself, only natural for a club the size of Arsenal’s. “What do you expect, people to applaud when you lose a game like that?” a frustrated Wenger told reporters post match.
And in that much, Wenger’s honest outlook most certainly cannot be faulted. There wouldn’t be a Premier League team in the country whose fans wouldn’t be frustrated at going out of the FA Cup at home to a side plying their trade in the division below them.
Although Arsenal aren’t just ‘any-team’ in the rest of the Premier League. This is a club that boasts a wage bill of £143million a year with designs on hopefully attaining another league title in the not too distant future. It’s a club that shouldn’t be progressing through the domestic ups out of hope, but doing so out of expectation.
Yet regardless of the imminent Champions League tie with Bayern Munich, Wenger’s decision to make seven changes to the side that beat Sunderland 1-0 the weekend before, hardly reeks of an unfaltering desire to end a trophy drought that’s set to hit the eight-year mark this summer.
Let’s be under no illusions here – the side that Wenger sent out against Rovers on Saturday should have sent the club into the next round and for all their bombardment of Jake Kean’s goal towards the end of the match, the Frenchman was badly let down by the Mikel Artetas, Olivier Girouds and most notably, Gervinhos of this world.
But for all the quality within the squad that ultimately let him down against Appleton’s men, Wenger ultimately took an unnecessary risk at the weekend. The players must take their share of responsibility, but it’s the Frenchman who has played his part in ensuring their long search for silverware will continue in all likeness for another season.
Tuesday night’s European encounter with Jupp Heynckes must have played on Wenger’s mind before the FA Cup tie, but did he really need to make seven changes? Given the battering Jack Wilshere has taken in recent games, you can understand why he might have wanted to wrap the Englishman up in cotton wool, but it’s hardly as if Blackburn offered the most grueling of examinations physically. They made the men from Ewood Park work hard without the ball and had they played a stronger XI, they would have had to work even harder.
It’s impossible to pre-empt whether the Gunners would have been gone through had they started with the likes of Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott and Bacary Sagna, but you would have thought they’d have made proceedings a little easier for themselves. The big guns should have been coming off with 20 minutes left to play, not coming on to participate in a salvage mission.
Again, you can never predict an FA Cup banana skin, but this Arsenal side hasn’t exactly been at their free-flowing best in recent games. Wins against Sunderland and Stoke City have come by just the single goal and they’ve looked relatively Jekyll and Hyde in their performances since the turn of the year. Switching so many players around against a side – only recently relegated from the Premier League – that had lost only once in their last ten game, seems like a roll of the dice however you wish to look at it.
For however much the romanticists want to breathe new life into the FA Cup, it’s never going to come close to the grandeur and riches that the Champions League has to offer. The naysayers may have already written off the Gunners against Bayern Munich but the competition remains a cup format and anything can happen – on their day, Wenger’s side are still capable of beating anybody.
It’s just difficult to buy into this concept that fielding a stronger XI against Blackburn Rovers would have done quite as much damage to their Champions League plans as what Wenger’s team selection suggested he thought.
It’s here that we approach dangerous territory in suggesting Arsenal aren’t capable of lifting the European Cup. Indeed, Chelsea are living evidence that this competition isn’t anywhere near as predictable as some make it out to be. But the FA Cup was a competition that Arsenal had not quite an infinitely better chance of winning, but not far off that statement, either. Wenger has to chase the European dream, of course he has to. But he didn’t have to do it at the expense of realistically ending his club’s trophy drought either.
Some have rightly suggested that the FA Cup has lost some of its grandeur in recent years, but it’s worth noting that the competition spawned Arsenal’s last bit of silverware in 2005. Yes, it wasn’t quite the Premier League nor was it a Champions League. But it represented a trophy, some silverware and most importantly, glory. And isn’t that what the game is all about?
One bad game by a slightly weakened side of players doesn’t define a legacy, nor does it require the head of the manager. But for as well as Arsenal may or may not play against Bayern Munich over two legs, they should be doing so with a place in the FA Cup quarter finals under their belts. And for that, Arsene Wenger must take his share of the blame.