It feels as though Arsene Wenger reached a fork in the road in Italy on Wednesday night and I’m fascinated to see which way he turns. Having previously never dared to publicly criticise his pampered players so vociferously, Wenger let rip in his post-match comments, letting the world know that their performance was not good enough. He followed that up with an extraordinary private dressing down on Thursday that apparently shocked the players as he finally seemed to lose patience with his under-performing stars.
We are now in uncharted territory and Wenger has two choices for today’s team selection:
1) He gives the same players a chance to make some sort of amends by picking them again.
2) He follows up his big talk with some action and drops those who’ve not been pulling their weight.
Wenger is not a fan of option two. His man management strategy has generally been to keep picking players he has faith in no matter how badly they perform, offering the carrot instead of the stick. In certain cases it works well — Song, Koscielny and even van Persie are now established first-choice players despite uncertain starts to their Arsenal careers. Wenger supporters often cite this as a reason to keep faith in him, but there have been far more players who haven’t responded to his gentle, fatherly nurturing — Denilson, Bendtner, Eboue, Aliadiere, Senderos and Traore spring to mind.
You want £90k a week? Show that you deserve it then
Now would be the ideal opportunity to hammer home the message that having talent and potential isn’t enough — you need application, spirit and a competitive edge. They need to show a burning desire to win and not be allowed to simply go through the motions safe in the knowledge they’ll be picked for the next game no matter what.
Wenger would be well within his rights to drop some or all of Walcott, Song, Rosicky, Ramsey and Djourou. In fact it would be long overdue in some cases. He could replace them with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Coquelin, Gervinho, Benayoun and Squillacci. Yes, even Squillacci — could he really play any worse than Djourou did?
So which way will Wenger go and what are the ramifications?
If he chooses option one and the team doesn’t respond, it’s a disaster. It would be a clear sign that Wenger has lost the dressing room and can’t motivate the players any longer. If he cannot coax a reaction from them after the fallout from Milan, it’s evidence these players no longer believe in him or his methods.
If they do respond though, we may well save a season that is heading for disaster. As I write this I have one eye on a woeful Chelsea performance against Birmingham in the FA Cup — they are in freefall and as inconsistent as we are I feel we can still nick fourth place from them if Wenger can somehow instill some hunger and desire in his team.
If he goes with option two it could be seen as an admittance from Wenger that placating these players and accepting their mediocre performances for so long has been a mistake. It may even hint at a shift in his principles and the emergence of a more ruthless Wenger, which I don’t think would be a bad thing at all.
I don’t know what the correct course of action is for today, but then I’m not paid £7m a year to figure that out. I hope he makes the right call and my gut tells me he will go with option one. What I do know is that today’s team selection and subsequent performance carries a lot more significance than usual. I think we are going to find out an awful lot about the players and Wenger by the end of the day.
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