The Gunners go into their against-the-odds Champions League mission in forlorn mood as they struggle to paper over the team’s ever-widening cracks
By Wayne Veysey in Munich
The first-choice goalkeeper is “mentally” exhausted. The team’s most reliable defender of the last few seasons has been joined by their 107-times-capped German forward on the sidelines. And the captain is facing the axe if the reserve left-back feels no pain on the morning of the match following six weeks out.
Most damagingly of all, the star player is putting his injured ankle up in Dubai sweating over whether he could even play again this season.
Throw in a mission impossible to avoid Champions League elimination and a run of results that has seen the team embarrassingly dumped from the FA Cup and facing the mother of all battles to clinch a 17th consecutive top-four finish, and it is little wonder that even Arsene Wenger’s smooth talking is falling on deaf ears.
Everywhere Arsenal turn is another reminder of the team’s frailties and the counter-productive decision-making at managerial and boardroom level.
In Wenger-speak, Wojciech Szczesny, the undisputed No1 for the last two-and-a-half seasons, is ‘rested’ following a string of dicey displays. “He has been affected mentally by what has happened,” explained the manager. “This is his second season and we need to rotate the players. It’s a big game and that’s why we play the players who are completely fit and ready.”
In other words, the 22-year-old has been axed because he is not considered to be up for the task.
Szczesny will be replaced by Lukasz Fabianski, who might not exactly be regarded as the comfort blanket supporters are looking for against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. Szczesny’s deputy has not started a first-team match for 13 months and is set to leave Arsenal on a free in the summer when his contract expires.
Had Wenger acted upon his instincts and recruited a battle-hardened, proven goalkeeper either last summer or in January, when enquiries were made for Pepe Reina, Asmir Begovic, Hugo Lloris and Julio Cesar among others, then the defence would have far greater confidence in the man behind them against the runaway Bundesliga leaders on Wednesday night.
The defence was supposed to be different this season – better organised, more efficient and less prone to conceding from set-pieces or sucker-punch opposition attacks. Steve Bould, a fabled member of the George Graham-moulded defence who had spent a decade cutting his teeth as a youth-team coach at the club, had been promoted to succeed the retired Pat Rice as Wenger’s No2.
Testing times | Wenger is in the midst of another turmultuous period in his managerial reign at Arsenal
Following three consecutive clean sheets at the start of the season, the appointment looked a smart one. Then, the old skittishness at the back returned.
Reports soon emerged of a rift between Wenger and Bould, which the manager condemned as “lies”. Mis-information and unconvincing denials are an increasingly common theme of the Frenchman’s press conferences, but in this instance he was correct.
It is understood there has been, and is, no rift. Nevertheless, Bould is a frustrated figure because he is not being allowed to coach the defence as he would wish.
The former centre-back was given licence to implement new defensive drills in pre-season, and this work seemed to bear fruit in early season. But Wenger performed a sharp U-turn. He felt the team’s creativity and attacking play had been neutered, and decided during the September international break to rein in the defensive work.
It was a clash of philosophies rather than the personalities of the two senior members of the coaching staff. There was only going to be one winner.
Arsenal’s various defensive combinations have taken the blame for not being up to the collective task. Thomas Vermaelen, for one, is a shadow of the dynamic titan of his early Arsenal years and is set for the axe against Bayern if Kieran Gibbs is declared fit on Wednesday morning.
Injuries are par for the course in top-level sport and, in that regard, Arsenal have fared far better this season than in previous years, which suggests that some of the lessons of preparation and rehabilitation have been learned.
It is unfortunate that Wenger is without Bacary Sagna and Lukas Podolski for the second leg, as both would be shoo-ins for the starting X1 if fully fit.
What is more perplexing is the case of Jack Wilshere, the golden boy for club and country.
Wilshere was sent to Dubai at the end of last week after Arsenal decided that the ankle injury he had sustained in the north London derby 10 days ago needed extended rest.
Wenger gave a somewhat confused update on Wilshere’s condition at two separate media briefings on Tuesday.
In the morning he claimed the midfielder would be out for three weeks with an inflamed left ankle, not the one that he underwent surgery on in September 2011 to cure a stress fracture that contributed to him missing 16 months of competitive football.
When he landed in Munich, Wenger said the 21-year-old would be out for four weeks and went into detail about how a scan had showed up bone bruising and inflammation on the same right ankle where he had surgery, as revealed by Goal.com on Tuesday.
Yet, according to Wenger, Wilshere has been taken out of the firing line to protect his left ankle.
Something does not quite add up. Are Arsenal simply protecting their talisman or trying to cover up their own failings?
Cause for concern | Wilshere’s importance to the team has affected his return from injury
It is understood the warning signs were there long before Wilshere’s latest setback. He is said to have been suffering intermittent pain in his right ankle in recent months, including before the Tottenham match. Naturally, for such a competitive soul who had missed so much football, Wilshere was desperate to keep playing.
Yet there is evidence to suggest Wilshere has been overplayed since making his comeback against QPR on October 27. He has played 28 times for club and country, starting 18 of Arsenal’s 20 league matches. Of the two he missed, he was suspended for one. Wenger rested him from the starting X1 for two FA Cup matches but such was the team’s predicament he ended up being summoned from the bench on both occasions.
Questions should certainly be asked if, as is feared, Wilshere does not kick a ball again this season.
Mikel Arteta is another case in point. He started all of Arsenal’s Premier League and five of their six Champions League group games until suffering a calf strain in January. It was only a minor injury and he was back training again within a fortnight but the Spaniard was not reinstated to the team for another two weeks because Arsenal recognised he had been overplayed and needed a rest.
At the club’s luxury London Colney headquarters, the players are cossetted and protected from the outside world.
In public, Wenger protects his charges to the hilt, even soft-soaping it when they are dropped to soothe their mental wounds.
Yet they are nervous and anxious when paraded on the big stage. Something, it seems, is clearly not working.
Wenger spoke with more hope than expectation on Tuesday of observers seeing a “completely different animal” if the players can be triumphant in a “big game”.
The circumstances of the tie, just as they were against AC Milan 12 months ago, mean that the pressure is off for Arsenal. In a way they have nothing to lose.
Yet if they fail to produce a Munich miracle, that should not stop a thorough inquest into why the same mistakes keep being made on and off the field.