Arsenal and Arsene Wenger have a multitude of questions to answer heading into their crucial Premier League clash against Manchester City this weekend. The biggest question, however, is what line up Wenger will choose as he looks to put his club's season back on track.
Wenger was bullish as he talked to the media prior to his 1,000th game in charge of the club and his team's clash against Chelsea. He dubbed it "the game of the season" and how Arsenal were set to use it as a stepping stone in their development to winning trophies, as per BBC Sport.
Fifteen minutes into the match, he must have wished the ground would open up and swallow him as his team capitulated spectacularly. The Blues humiliated the Gunners, both in terms of scoreline and performance. In truth, Arsenal were not even as good as second best.
After the game, Wenger did not give the post-match press conference. He did, however, manage to give a few words to the BBC. He said:
This is my fault.
We got a good hiding. You don't prepare all week to experience that.
I don't think there's too much need to talk about the mistakes we made.
It's how we respond now on Tuesday night [against Swansea] and the best way is not to explain too much the mistakes.
Against Garry Monk's Swansea City, Arsenal were not much better than they were against Jose Mourinho's Chelsea.
The Swans were set up perfectly by Monk. The relegation-threatened team can count themselves unlucky only to come away from the Emirates Stadium with a 2-2 draw. Swansea were much the better team after a rather strange and muted performance by Arsenal.
The two results combined have seen the Gunners drop out of contention for the Premier League title, even though they are still mathematically contenders. That has set alarm bells ringing at Arsenal HQ. This week Mathieu Flamini, scorer of an unlucky own goal against Swansea, issued a rallying cry to his teammates to get their season back on track with the ominous specter of Manchester City looming.
Flamini's call comes with good reason, as Arsenal have collapsed against title-challenging contenders at each and every time of asking this season.
The Gunners suffered a heavy 6-3 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in December. They followed that up by losing 5-1 to Liverpool at Anfield and, lest we forget, a 6-0 mauling to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Now they welcome City, who utterly destroyed Manchester United in a performance reminiscent of how the Pensioners disposed of Arsenal.
It is little wonder that Flamini told the Daily Mirror that his team have to get back to basics, as reported by John Cross:
When you play a big game, you cannot lose it in the first 10 or 15 minutes because it is not good afterwards for the rest of the game.
So we have to be focused, be ready for this kind of game because at the end of the day, these kind of games are battles.
You have to win the duels, win the fight and then play your football.
We have to be strong defensively first of all because that is very important when you play against a big team like that who are very offensive team. After, we have enough quality in this team to find a goal.
I feel like there are more leaders on the pitch, more personality, more character [this year].
That's very important because it was maybe missing a bit in the past couple of years, but I feel like this year we have more leaders, more characters and it is very important to keep going in this direction.
Those words are in stark contrast to Paul Scholes' view of things in the Arsenal dressing room and on the pitch. The ex-Manchester United midfielder, taking a leaf from Roy Keane's book of honest analysis, savaged Arsenal when working as a pundit for Sky Sports:
They capitulated at Chelsea and it seems to be a similar theme when they play the top teams.
It happened in Liverpool and they conceded six against the City. For one reason or another, players just seem to go missing. The Artetas, Cazorlas, Rosickys, Ozils, it seems like they go on the pitch with no discipline.
They play a few nice little one-twos, a bit of tippy-tappy football and don't bother running back. There's no leader with them.
It's the Arsenal fans you feel sorry for, because they seem to get the same thing every year, maybe a little hint of the title for a few weeks and then go to Chelsea, City or Liverpool and do nothing.
Scholes' words will make for sober reading for many Arsenal fans, let alone their players, especially as Arsene Wenger seems intent on blaming poor results as freak accidents.
He wrote the Chelsea defeat off to an accident and told Sky Sports just as much:
It all went wrong and we failed completely on Saturday because we did not turn up with a performance.
We just came out of two convincing results at Bayern Munich and at Tottenham with a very solid defensive performance, so you have to think that the defeat at Chelsea was an accident.
How do you deal with the accident? You repair them, you repair the damage and you go for the next one.
An accident has happened, that doesn't mean that you are not a good driver
Not only were the Gunners less than convincing against Bayern Munich, and especially Tottenham Hotspur, Wenger actually has a past record of deflecting all of the blame after losses.
Arsenal were beaten by Bayern Munich at the Emirates Stadium and drew with them in Germany but ultimately went out to the far better team. Rather than turn on his team, Wenger turned the attention on Arjen Robben, who he said was a diver, as per Sky Sports.
Against Stoke, he claimed they only lost because the referee awarded a soft penalty, as per Sky Sports.
When his team were destroyed 5-1 by Liverpool, he said the result was another "accident," as per BBC Sport.
The Frenchman has mollycoddled his team for far too long this season. Now he has to act.
The most frightening development for Arsenal and their fans following the poor performances against Chelsea and Swansea City is that they seem to have left Wenger impotent.
Flamini is right in the sense that his team must return to basics this weekend against City.
This is a scandalously high number of first-team players out injured, the most in the Premier League, and Wenger really has to answer some serious questions in this regard.
Over the course of the season, the Gunners have consistently led this table. Back in January, I drew attention to this fact and said there would be a time that Wenger's training methods would be questioned.
It would now seem that Wenger himself is concerned at the spate of injuries at the club. The Frenchman has launched an inquiry into the matter, according to a report by Paul Doyle in the Guardian, and he wants to know why his club always seems to have bad luck when it comes to injuries.
I am concerned that this happens.
If you look at our overall injury list going into such a decisive part of the season, we have not Wilshere, not Walcott, not Ozil, not Ramsey and we went to Bayern without [Kieran] Gibbs and [Nacho] Monreal.
We are analyzing very deeply why it happened and to see if there is a link between all these injuries.
Back in 2011, Wenger told the Guardian that injuries were threatening to derail Arsenal's season. The Gunners went through another injury crisis in 2012, as per Matt Fortune's report in the Daily Mail. This season, he bemoaned their injury crisis again to the Guardian.
The "injury crisis" means that the team to face Manchester City basically picks itself.
Wojciech Szczesny will definitely start in goal. Bacary Sagna, the excellent Kieran Gibbs, Per Mertesacker and the returning Thomas Vermaelen will make up the back four.
Mikel Arteta and Flamini should start in central midfield as Tomas Rosicky and Santi Cazorla take up the attack-minded berths on the left and in the center.
Olivier Giroud is coming under pressure from Lukas Podolski for the role as the lone centre-forward. It could go either way. However, the German's freshness of late and speed from a standing position should see off the Frenchman.
That leaves the right-sided midfield berth as the last place for Wenger to ponder.
In a normal week, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would be an automatic choice. His performances against Chelsea and Swansea, however, were extremely poor and one feels that Serge Gnabry deserves a return to the first team as the Ox drops to the bench.
Whatever team Wenger picks to face Manuel Pellegrini's team, they face an uphill battle.
This is a week where the manner of the performance far outweighs the result. Lose well and the Gunners will be almost back on track with important matches against Everton and Wigan in the FA Cup looming.
Lose or win badly and that elusive and all-important momentum train will have been missed for yet another week.
It might be Wenger's 1,002nd match at Arsenal, but it could prove to be one of the most defining.
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