EMIRATES STADIUM—Arsene Wenger made two decisions during Arsenal’s defeat to Bayern Munich that raised eyebrows, although one was actually far more questionable than the other.
The first decision, one that emerged (to widespread surprise) about an hour before kick-off, was that Wenger had decided to give 21-year-old striker Yaya Sanogo his second start for the club just days after his full debut in the FA Cup against Liverpool.
Sanogo had played reasonably well in that 2-1 win, mixing it physically with Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger even if some of his technical play left a bit to be desired, but there has been nothing to suggest from his individual display that he was ready to start in a Champions League last-16 match.
Indeed, on Sunday it has been widely assumed that Sanogo primarily started in order to give Olivier Giroud some rest. Giroud’s workload this season has been well-documented, while some emerging off-field issues (which the Frenchman bizarrely chose to address just hours before kick-off) meant it seemed to make sense to give him an afternoon off, to allow him to be fully rested and prepared for Wednesday night.
Instead, Wenger decided to give Sanogo another start.
“It was just a decision based on performance,” Wenger told reporters afterwards. “Also I wanted to give Yaya a chance—and I thought he did well.”
The prevailing response to Sanogo’s selection in the aftermath has been that it highlights, yet again, Arsenal’s lack of another half-way established striking option (sorry, Nicklas Bendtner)—that glaring weakness that they should have, could have, needed to address in January.
Yet, perhaps what it really illustrates is the opposite—that Wenger does have another striking option, one he is now prepared to use at the right moments.
Wenger is no fool; he would not put out a substandard player in one of his side’s biggest games of the season simply to make a point to a key man with off-field issues.
Instead, he perhaps noted that Giroud had not scored in his last three starts for the club, and that in the most recent of those starts, against Manchester United, he had seemed to be lacking a certain sharpness as he failed to convert a handful of openings in front of goal.
Having started 36 games (including internationals) already this season, fatigue—or “the red zone” as Wenger calls it, an area Aaron Ramsey was likely in just before he got injured—was a very real issue for the 27-year-old.
Also, there is a Premier League run-in for him to be ready for.
“It was just a decision based on performance,” Wenger reiterated, when pushed about the selection. “When I play Giroud every game, people reproach me. Tonight I rested him so people should be happy!
“It was not punishment, it was just a decision tonight because in recent games... Giroud is a strong character, what happened to him does not influence him on the pitch, we rest him for one or two games and he can come back refreshed.”
Above and beyond that, is it not also worth asking exactly how involved Giroud would have really been in the game? Sanogo received a total of 23 passes over the course of the 90 minutes, providing 14 of his own to other team-mates.
Giroud may have been slightly more involved, and his movement better suited to taking advantage of any astute balls from Mesut Ozil, but on the whole the striker’s primary job was to make a nuisance of himself against the Bayern back line—pressing from the front and holding up play when the opportunity allowed.
Physical, energy-sapping work for little likely reward.
"His work rate [versus Liverpool] was unbelievable and that's what you want from a forward,” club captain Thomas Vermaelen said of Sanogo in his programme notes. “He looks quite strong and will only get better."
With that in mind, playing Sanogo made sense in another way—Bayern may well have studied Giroud’s movements and tendencies while scouting Arsenal games as preparation, but they would have had very little to go on when it came to Sanogo.
That uncertainty seemed to affect Dante and Jerome Boateng somewhat in the opening 30 minutes, a period of the game that Arsenal dominated. Guardiola was almost always on the sidelines in that period to ensure those two and Javi Martinez knew how to cope with the young Frenchman and Ozil, who was floating around the pitch in search of possession and influence.
Wenger’s final assessment of Sanogo’s performance was positive: “Overall I think it is one of the satisfactions. He worked hard, and showed some good touches.“
For a while, Arsenal were perhaps the better side; Bayern still looked dangerous, but they certainly seemed rattled as Sanogo and Santi Cazorla forced Manuel Neuer into action early on.
Then came Arsenal’s big moment, as Ozil’s trickery inside the box flummoxed Boateng and bought a penalty. Ozil stepped up to take it and, after the sort of stutter-step that never succeeds in inspiring confidence in observers, saw Neuer palm away his tentative effort with a solid save.
Ozil was visibly angry, frustrated and embarrassed by the miss, and he had still not recovered mentally by the time Bayern won a penalty of their own. David Alaba also missed (hitting the post), but Arsenal still had to pay a price, Wojciech Szczesny getting a red card after bringing down Arjen Robben.
Someone had to come off to allow back-up goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski to enter the fray, and it seemed to be a straight choice between Ozil and Cazorla (Sanogo had to remain to lead the line and Oxlade-Chamberlain, while less technically adept than the other two, offered a counter-attacking outlet with his pace).
In the end Wenger chose to sacrifice Cazorla, a move that was greeted with chants of “San-ti Cazorla” from the stands, an indication of their thoughts on the decision. Cazorla, to that point, had impressed with both his direct attack at the Bayern defence and his clear determination to track back.
Wenger was never given the chance to explain his decision after the match—other issues, like the red card, took up his time with reporters—so we can only speculate at to his thought process. One imagines that he decided Ozil, for all his reluctance to fulfil his defensive assignments, was more capable of producing one moment of magic that might enable Arsenal to steal a goal against the odds (he single-handedly created the penalty, after all).
Unfortunately, however, the decision did not quite work out like that. Ozil was subdued for almost the entirety of the remainder of the match and, as Bayern claimed more and more of the possession and probed further and further down the left flank he was supposed to be defending, Ozil seemed to struggle more and more.
He earned himself more than one reprimand from Mathieu Flamini, who was barking instructions all night, and failed to produce anything to justify his presence in an attacking sense (not that his side ever had much of the ball anyway).
Unfortunately for Wenger, between the loss of Szczesny, an injury to Kieran Gibbs and the need to add Tomas Rosicky for Oxlade-Chamberlain to re-energise and reinforce his overworked midfield, he had no scope with his substitutions to either add Giroud or replace Ozil.
On Szczesny’s red card and Gibbs’ injury, Wenger noted: "[There was] No opportunity to change at all after that, [what] if a third player gets injured? You cannot change, they can bring fresh players on. It killed the game.”
It could all have been so different had Ozil stepped up and found the bottom corner with his spot-kick. Not only would it have given Arsenal the early advantage, it would have boosted Ozil’s confidence after a difficult few weeks for him.
“The regret I have is we missed our penalty,” Wenger acknowledged. “We needed that tonight as you could see Bayern was on the ropes at that time.
“We had three early chances and to unsettle them further we needed to score that, but [Ozil] missed it.
“He was affected by it. You could see five minutes later, he was still shaking his head. It affected his performance.”
He went on to describe confidence as the “petrol of the players,” a sentiment that somehow seemed to make sense after witnessing the Bayern machine power so smoothly to an eventual 2-0 win.
Because of the final result, behind Szczesny's red card it is the decision to start Sanogo over Giroud that will get more attention than the choice to take off Cazorla ahead of Ozil—but it is the latter that is actually less explicable.
Giroud, however, will likely return to the first team quickly. This experience might only accelerate Sanogo's development into being a viable back-up, too.
Rebuilding Ozil’s confidence, however, might take far longer. And it might need to be addressed as a matter of urgency if Arsenal are to finish this season with something to show for it.