Clutching at straws: Wenger’s final chance to turn his season around

Three league losses in four and about to get knocked out of the Champions League after a 5-1 thrashing at the Allianz Arena in the first leg means that Arsenal are, once again, looking like their season has already fallen apart in March. It has become a theme for Arsene Wenger’s nearly-men Gunners; they impress through the early winter months before the turn of the year sends them into a meltdown that they spend the rest of the season desperately trying to recover from.

This year that recovery process will be a fair bit harder. The other top six clubs are stronger than in previous campaigns, Spurs, Liverpool and Chelsea are without European distraction and the two Manchester clubs continue to look stronger the longer the season wears on.

Their Tuesday night encounter with Bayern is meaningless when it comes to the Champions League this season. The disastrous first leg unerringly crushed any hopes the Gunners had of progression. But it does serve a purpose for the remainder of their season. What can be taken from this match is a renewed sense of belief, a feeling that all is not lost and proof that the team can get somewhere near the levels of earlier in the season.

An abysmal first half against Liverpool at the weekend sapped any minutiae of belief that this could yet be a good season. Arsenal were awful, outcompeted, tactically naive and well off the pace against a Liverpool team that did not spring any surprises. That display, added to by the dropping of Alexis Sanchez to the bench, only furthers the importance of an improved performance against the Bundesliga champions.

Resting some of his first choice players must be tempting for Wenger. While the schedule is not hectic, their minds will need a break from the continuous stream of pressure and ‘big’ fixtures. This is not the time to shuffle the pack, though. He has spoken a good game prior to the match, openly keen to attack Bayern from the off, but he must go full strength and pick the side that gives Arsenal the best chance of winning on the night even if the aggregate score makes for ugly reading.

Playing for pride will be mentioned in the build-up to the game, but the outcome of this match has greater implications. The hurt of the first leg can be softened with a victory and may yet serve as proof to some that Wenger can still compete with the best in Europe. A weakened, partially motivated Arsenal could face another drubbing, but a well set up, full-strength Arsenal could catch a potentially complacent Bayern off guard.

Had league form still given them an outside chance of catching Chelsea or made top four look guaranteed, Arsenal could perhaps accept another defeat and play a weakened team. The reality, however, is that the performance and result from this match is significant even though they are going to be eliminated. It may be a faint, almost false, hope, but a positive result and reenergised performance would show Arsenal can yet turn this season around, it might only be a minute sighting of recovery, but it’s all they’ve got to hope for at the moment.