Should Arsenal Sacrifice One Or Both The Cups?

It’s a question that can make some people uncomfortable but I think it deserves some consideration.

Many seem to agree that last season crashing out of all three Cups in a short span of time flung the squad into a confidence depriving free fall that the manager could not curtail. It had a massive impact on the players’ psyche, Arsenal’s league position at the end of the season, and quite possibly played a part in some of the summer’s transfers.

I’d suggested at the time and still can’t help but wonder whether the Gunners would have had a better season if they’d not given their all in the Champions League second round tie against Barcelona. As of now and in the years to come, few will remember that Arsenal were the club that came closest to knocking the reigning European Champions out. A much larger number will find the disappointments, to put it mildly, of the last few weeks of the season hard to suppress in their memories.

Now that Arsenal are in three tournaments at the beginning of the second half of the season, a similar question seems rather pertinent. I doubt Wenger, given his competitive nature, will give it serious consideration. Nor do I have any hopes that members of the staff or some of the players will try to reason with the manager on this topic. So I do expect Arsenal to challenge on all fronts but that shouldn’t prevent us from discussing the merits of this question.

Let’s look at Tottenham for a start. They’ve had an impressive League campaign by their standards. Undoubtedly, their relative (and limited I must add) success thus far is based on a number of factors. Adebayor has been the striker Redknapp missed all of last season. Modric didn’t leave in the summer. Bale and Van der Vaart have sustained or improved on their efforts from last season. And so on. But apart from the obvious player and manager related issues, one factor seems to stand out. Tottenham have competed for only one trophy in the first half of the season.

Spurs were knocked out in the first Carling Cup game they played. And the fact that they couldn’t even get through their group in a competition like the Europa League says enough about their efforts in that particular tournament. The impact of this is not immediately obvious but let’s explore this further.

How often have you heard Arsene Wenger complaining about his players lacking sharpness or being tired after the efforts of a midweek tie? The Gunners have played 8 matches in the Champions League this season and their record in the League games immediately following these ties is P8 W3 D1 L4.

It would be naive to put the entire blame of that dismal record on the strains of the Champions League. The first couple of losses against Liverpool and United came under difficult circumstances. Arsenal might have lost those games even if they hadn’t played the qualifiers. Suspensions and transfer related issues were a big factor at that time. But would the result against Spurs have been a little different if the players had an extra 10 percent energy in their tanks with a midweek rest? How about the loss at Blackburn or the home draw with Fulham? It’s not hard to see the Dortmund games took a lot out of the players physically and mentally. We can’t really quantify the impact of that but should we completely deny it?

City or United have not had similar problems in the League but their managers’ attempts at balancing the load with some rotation has clearly failed as is evident from their early departures from the Champions League. Chelsea lost two of their three away games after Champions League encounters. It’s not as bad as Arsenal’s record but it does make a difference at the end of the season.

Another interesting way to look at it is to compare the load on key players. For Arsenal, Van Persie has made 25 appearances so far this season in all competitions. Ramsey and Theo are on 24 while Arteta and Koscielny are one behind that. At United, Nani has clocked up 29 appearances, Jones 28, Evra 26, and Rooney 25. Silva and Aguero have made 28 appearances for City with Yaya Toure and Kompany chipping in with 25 each. For Spurs though, Bale has 21 while Modric and Van der Vaart have 20. Their full-backs and a couple of other fringe players have more but most of their key players have only played in one competition. The difference is not big but it’s undeniable that a breather in just two or three games over half a season can have a substantial impact on a player’s performances and fitness.

It can also be argued that some of the Gunners who have played a fewer number of games have done so in a much shorter period of time as injuries often reduced or completely eliminated the chances for resting players, especially in defence. For instance, Santos made a total of 14 appearances in a very short span of time. In fact, when he got injured against Olympiacos the Brazilian was making his 10th consecutive start in seven weeks. That might not seem like much, but for a guy who probably never played at such intensity regularly, or at least didn’t look like he did, it obviously proved to be a strain his body couldn’t handle.

Now some might argue that appearances in themselves are not a very good stat to use as some of the substitute appearances are very short ones and other counter arguments can be made. I agree. But they do, to an extent, reinforce the point that Spurs have been able to keep their key players fresher than the big teams. How much of an impact that has made is anyone’s guess. I like to think it’s been significant.

Any such discussion would also bring issues like squad depth and rotation to the fore. Broadly speaking I’d want greater depth and a lot more rotation but it’s not as easy as it can sound.

Mancini has had no shortage of funds or squad players but wasn’t able to rotate his players in a manner that they could perform in the Champions League and the Premiership. Last season we saw Spurs struggle in the League when they had to balance it with Europe’s elite club competition. In the past Liverpool too had their share of issues and Dalglish hasn’t found sufficient consistency this season despite a fair bit of rotation. Clearly, it’s not as straightforward as swapping one player for another. That said, I do feel Ferguson has achieved this balance better and more consistently than other managers and that has been one of the integral aspects of his success. But this issue is complex enough to deserve its own discussion at a later date. For now I think it’s safe to say that simply blaming incorrect or insufficient rotation cannot be a valid argument against the manager.

Similarly, squad depth is a tough one to crack. Given the spate of concentrated injuries that Arsenal seem to get, it would be imprudent to assume that buying more players can be a solution. For instance, How many full-backs can one buy? Given the way Coquelin joined the near exhaustive list of injured full-backs at Arsenal, can anyone guarantee that a new January signing will not succumb to the same fate in probably his first match?!

Nevertheless, when one sees players like Park or Benayoun being used so sparingly it does raise valid questions about the depth of the squad at least in terms of the quality available. But quality of players is a really tricky topic. There is no such thing as a proven player. For every Mata there is a Reyes, for every Aguero a Carroll or Torres. Sometimes the same player can be a success and a failure within the same season. The point of course is not that no signing should be made for fear of failure but that fans should not assume a player will succeed if signed. Such assumption driven assertions are the chief cause of opinion-pollution on the internet/media. But I don’t want to get caught up in that discussion right now.

So to come back to the topic of the post, I do broadly agree that better rotation and squad depth can help but these solutions are not as obvious as a cursory analysis would have you believe. I think it’s a challenge every manager grapples with constantly and Wenger does better than most even if it’s far from ideal. With that in mind I don’t see either of these coming to Arsenal’s rescue as far as the performances of the rest of the season are concerned.

It could be that Arsene finds a couple of good deals in the market and it could also happen that the injured players return while few or no others enter the treatment room with serious complaints. In that case Arsenal could very well have a squad to compete on all fronts. But the recent track record just doesn’t fill me with confidence.

Then there is the issue of the trophy drought. Some might think the Gunners can get past the likes of Aston Villa and Milan. After that who knows, the luck of the draw might work in their favour. The Premiership title is out of reach this year but there is hope in the Cups. I don’t deny the possibility but it’s hard to see the odds work out. A couple of poor results in the League due to the travails of midweek games can easily bring back the self-doubt that was so palpable at the end of last season and hasn’t been buried irretrievably deep enough just yet.

Once we put together all these factors – the importance of resting players, the complexities of rotations and squad depths, the psychological impacts of fighting hard for the Cups/losing points in the League, and so on – I strongly believe sacrificing at least one of the Cups would be an astute move for Arsenal.

That’s not to say Wenger should play kids against Milan or Villa and chuck the games. It doesn’t have to be so blatant. All Arsenal need is fractionally lower mental and physical involvement in the Cup ties. The manager can rest one or two players for these games and those who do take the field can play with a nothing to lose attitude. The basic idea is not about throwing games away – although “sacrificing the Cups” does make it sound that way – but about balancing the mental and physical effort being put in. By sacrificing I mean playing with a certain liberated nonchalance – neither frivolous nor intense. And if they do go out of one of the Cups they can raise the level in the other one depending on the draw and the fitness/form factor at that point in time.

For this to materialize everyone at the club would have to have a very clear idea of the priorities for the season. For me that’s finishing in the top four. Everything else is secondary. It’s not a thought that delights me but it does seem like a pragmatic approach given the current circumstances.

24 Responses to Should Arsenal Sacrifice One Or Both The Cups?

  1. N17 says:

    Pathetic article.
    1) You never ever sacrifice mental/physical attitude in a match. It’s not a tap you turn on and off at will. Once you tolerate less than 100% attitude, it will come back to bite you.
    2) You never sacrifice a game. You prioritise games. It is not a pedantic difference. You strategically rest top players for the tournament you believe to be the most important. You play the less experienced players in the lower priority tournaments – with 100% mental/physical attitude to win. That way you educate them to grow properly.
    3) What is the logic of prioritising the league over the champion’s league? You’ll qualify for next season only to sacrifice it for the league. Seems self-defeating.

    Oh and btw, our success this year is good by your standards too.

    • ujang suhara says:

      second that….

    • Dhruv says:

      Maybe Desi is saying the tactics should be different and not to play too much possession-based football. Making wholesale changes and then losing will not help anybody. It is a brave article but Desi has not put it properly.

      BTW, 4th place is not easy anymore if you think that! Stakes are pretty high in EPL and the squad is not in the best shape right now.

      • gooner4 says:

        Druv possesion based football is the way forward. We just need to be more direct with it. Simple.

        Wearing the other team down chasing the ball is what gives you the advantage later on in the game.

        Even the fittest teams cant press and chase for a full 90 minute but bad finishing and unbelievable keeping is sometimes the difference between winning and drawing.

        Fine margins decide games and it helps if you have the ball.

      • Dhruv says:

        Yes gooner4 I agree with that. I was saying should not play with strategies all the time. You have to have the right players for possession based fooball. Not everybody can play like Barcelona. If you make changes to squad for these cups and play similar kind of footbal, I think you could be at disadvantage. Fergie played with 7 defenders against Arsenal last time in FA cup (I think) and still won. What do you say to that?

  2. YB says:

    Hi Dessie, enjoy reading your post. My opinions are these; Arsenal dominate matches possession wise and they are a team with the highest possession in the league. Considering possession against how many goals are scored the ratios are very poor, i believe this is the main cause of fatigue for a team, if only they can convert their chances arsenal will be a team to be feared by many and not many teams will face them with the confidence of snatching a point or three.
    On rotation i believe this season we have many players especially in midfield, ramsey,song, arteta is an overused combination we had coquelin(b4 being played out of position untill he got injured) we have benayoun, rosicky, arshavin, ox. the only position we miss a backup is stricker. Despite our defensive injuries we still have had players and it seems we never miss som1 to fill in and suprisingly all perform. Arsene needs to believe in his squad and buy another striker for rotation purposes. A clinical finisher at that.
    If we can be converting our chances alot of load will be uplifted from the players and injuries will be a thing of the past.
    With goals comes freedom to play your game and thats what we miss, on a parting shot something to note since the olimpicos game and apart from the aston villa match where we snatched victory very late we have not scored more than one goal.

  3. Gunner Grit says:

    Hi Desi – absorbing stuff as usual. I just feel that our confidence is more sustainable now that we have a midfield that is genuinely hard working and combative.When you have this sort of attitude and camaraderie you continue to channel any despondency into effort.Up front,RVP is never short of confidence-although if we don’t back him up with goals from others he is going to get short of legs sooner or later.And with more grit on the way when Bac and Jack get back our strength will improve.

  4. Dhruv says:

    I had one question for you Desi, how did Wenger manage to win the FA Cup and PL with Henry and Co. They also reached CL final. I know the Premier League is more competitive now and the quality we had at that time is not available but is Fergie not doing it year after year. We cannot do anything right now about it but at the end of season, these questions should come up.

    Now, talking about the current season and working with what we have, I mean with an injured squad and Wenger not having plan B, why are no signings being made if we know that we are in 3 cups. Arteta and Per did make a difference in Summer, didn’t they. Whether they work out or not is difference but Wenger at least needs to make an effort.

    • WafflingWenger says:

      I hate all this talk of a need for a ‘plan B’. In my opinion it’s just another attempt by the predominately British and British influenced media/commentary to get Arsenal to play in a manner that they are better able to understand & is thus complete garbage. There is no need for a plan B when you are committed to playing proactive & positive football, but there are varying degrees of success which can (and usually are at Arsenal) dealt with via various subtle shifts in tactics, instructions and substitutions which are often missed by inept commentary and journalism.

      On a side note I find the notion of resting players in knockout champions league football ridiculous. Taking into account the fact that Wenger ALWAYS rests aspects of his squad in domestic cup competitions I don’t see this article as otherwise particularly controversial or groundbreaking. Wlishere and Diaby’s absences have been felt the most in terms of the need for rotation in midfield and I expect ramsey in particular to be given a very healthy rest as soon as either of these two are fit for an extended period of time.

      Keep up the good work Desi

  5. nikkogunners says:

    I remember there was a season we were chasing all the four fronts and we are clear on top in the league and we were facing Man United in a league game and FA game and Chelsea twice in the Champion League quarters. Wenger fielded a strong team in the Matches with Man U and it affected our Champions League outing to a point that Chelsea Knocked us out since Both Reyes and Henry sustained injuries. I felt that we would have fielded an understrength side in the Man League game and i have a feeling that that was the Champions League that we were going to win. It was won by Porto if am not wrong. We ended up with one trophy – The league…

    • gooner4 says:

      I take your point on that season. But its a numbers game. Chelsea had not beaten us for about 20 games leading upto those games and we had already beaten them 3 times that season if im not wrong. They were desperate to beat us. The bridge goal did fuck us and your right that was our season to win it. Had we Fielding a shadow side would of been suicide against Man utd when they were actually dangerous.

      Not a bad trophy to end up with though…the league!

      It takes a tremendous effort, lady luck shining on you, minmal injuries to key players at key times if you want to win 1 trophy let alone 2 or even 3!

      • VanTheManPersie says:

        I think injuries to key players has been the reason for arsenal’d downfall. We have to remember that Henry used to play 90 min for most of the games for us during our glory days much like Viera and co. Arsenal success came when we had them fit virtually for the entire season and with lower clubs being also less competitive playing players like edu (who was quality too btw) was less risky and we won against smaller clubs comfortably.

        The best players in the world have also been fit long enough to prove their worth and they would cost a lot more and usually on loosing fitness, they lost their way e.g.Kaka,Ronaldinho (got fat:P).

        In recent seasons loosing players like fab,van persie,adebayor,vermaelen,rosicky(he was imp when bought) at key moments has cost us.
        The best players not only have the most skills but are also the fittest among the lot. Ronaldo,Messi now and in their primes Henry,Viera,Lampard play 90 min most of the times they start and play a lot of games.
        Some would argue that the injuries are a result of over playing. I disagree and yes they happen in football, but henry was over played for most of his career at arsenal and some players are always a bit more fragile than others.

        They will generally cost more and arsene has been reluctant to bring such players in.
        Lets face it , its important to qualify for champions league not so we can win it next year, but more so just to keep players like van persie,Walcott and Song whom we stuck to for a long time and also attrack the likes of Gotze.

        Also that way i dont ahve to change my screen name

  6. gooner4 says:

    We are an elite club why would we sacrifice or ‘not turn up’ for our matches in the cups?

    That is a small club mentality. Big clubs want to go s far as they can in EVERY competition.

    100% pride 100% passion 100% of the time is the minimal you expect from the team. The core of the team will remain and ultimately play the most games. Playing regularly and consistantly winning breeds confidence but fatigue will occur and we just need the squad players that do come in accordingly and hopefully do themselves and us justice.

    Constantly playing top level high pressure games in relatively short periods is what seperates the good teams from the elite teams.

    Desi you seem an intelligent guy but sometimes thing are a lot more simple than you try to explain them.

    Fatigue is just an excuse for failure or a poor result. Highly tuned athletes can play game after game week after week the fact of the matter is I dont think a few of them actually want to.

    You need a winning mentality to succeed and without it you will be happy to settle. Domestically we can and we will get top 4 and the FA cup is very attainable. And we can push on in Europe but we wont win that 1 unitil we strengthen substantially but we can progress throught to the semis but on the otherhand with a good draw and a lot of luck who knows? Stranger things have happened.

    It is good to have realistic expectations but to have no faith or confidence in the ability to at the very least compete on a minimal of two fronts quite I find to be quite negative and defeatist.

  7. WingedGooner says:

    Few tactical corrections can change our season and keep everyone fresh for the next game. We need to constantly change the formation according to the situation and players involved. Very few strikers can successfully play on their own up front in a 4-3-3. For eg, Chamakh can’t be played on his own up front with a MF like Ramsey behind him. MC and Park need to be played along with effective shooters like RVP/Arshavin behind them.
    Ramsey’s distribution is good and has a tremondous work rate but makes a lot of bad decisions and needs to improve his shooting. He is better off with RVP in front of him and quick direct forwards like Gerv n Theo to release. Benayoun,Rosicky,Arshavin are better players to hold the ball with in the dying moments of a game than Ramsey.

    I would also like to point out that it is due to some mindless home fans that players lose confidence. Booing Arshavin,Chamakh is just absolutely disgraceful. Apart from a handful of sub appearances, MC29 has started one game every month. They may not be good enough but if they don’t have the support,how can they showcase anything?? Atleast respect them till they are contracted. Home fans should take a full fledged course from our away crowd.

    Great post as always Mr. Desi!!

    • Dhruv says:

      More sensible

    • RedCore says:

      Yes. I too think that you cannot ask ask the players to enter a game with anything less than a 100% commitment. My take on this is similar to yours. I think all of us agree that Ferguson is probably the best in rotating his squad. One of the reasons he does that so successfully is because he is flexible with his formations.

      AW did that against Bolton this season in the carling cup by putting Arshavin in the centre and playing 4 in midfield. We got a great 90 mins out of AA, rested a few key players and won the match too.

      It may not always work out so well but over the course a grueling season such changes are very necessary, but for some reason Le Boss does not prefer to do it.

      Congrats to Desi for another great and sensible article.

      • dy says:

        Fergusion does have an clear set of priorities for his choice of players, very different from Arsene. I won’t say its better or worst, but you can see the physical side of the players are different. Of course this is the requirement for a certain style of play. Could this be the reason why Arsenal seems to suffer more injuries than others ?

  8. dy says:

    I can only blame Arsene not utilizing the best out of the players, including all those in the squad. A tad too rigid in his choice for first team. All those passes in possession just going sideways, and back and forth around the midfield say nothing about the outcome of the game. Unless Arsenal is winning by a few goals already, holding onto the ball too long really slows down the tempo of the game and more often you can’t get right back to control the pace when the ball is lost to the opposition.

  9. Wrenny says:

    Interesting article. To some fans this kind of pragmatism is utter blasphemy but to me these are issues that need to be considered. Sacrificing one of the cup competitions can bring obvious physical advantages to our league matches. Particularly the CL, in my opinion, as its matches places much greater physical and mental demands on the team than most FA Cup ties, as well as the greater travel usually involved. However, on the flipside there’s also the confidence boost that knocking AC Milan out could have on the team and transfer into our league form. It’s a tricky one. I trust Wenger to balance the squad’s need for rest with its need for belief.

    But there’s a real worry that with Spurs already out of every cup competition and both Manchester clubs likely to play weakened sides in the Europa League, they may be able to maintain their strong league form throughout the season while our cup commitments may see us struggle to maintain our own.

  10. JJ Pittman says:

    Primary goal is to finish in top 4 of EPL. This should be for more than just the money! Maybe not? Both Mancs are out, but can’t say they took it lightly. City were in one of the toughest groups(Napoli are much improved this season and last) ManUre are missing defenders, but I don’t believe they chucked it.
    Points are well taken, but we must pursue the 3 we are still in. Don’t mind playing reserves in the Careless cup, and hope we don’t have to do that next season. Remember when there used to be the Champions Cup, the Cup Winners Cup and the UEFA Cup? 3 competitions now are 2, but there is no doubt the Europa League is almost like the Carling Cup.
    In the EPL, the “big 4” is now 6. City finally are getting results for all that £ and despite a depleted squad, ManUre will likely still be in the top 4. We have to finish ahead of 2 of 3 among Spuds, Scouse and Chelski. Liverpool have continuing problems and we should finish ahead of them. Spuds have to drop 9, but they are who they are. We have every reason to believe we can catch Chel$ea even if they do buy players in the window.
    Still comes down to: “Why be in the CL if you don’t play to win it?”
    We were close last season and I believe we knocked AC Milan out twice in the last 5 seasons. I remember at least one magic goal by Henry and An excellent man-marking job by Flamini on Kaka.
    Have to agree that playing Santos against Olimpiakos was horrible, but 4 CHs across the back line is not all that bad. Kosc is much improved and Sagna and Vermaelen will be back soon.
    Victoria Concordia Crescit.

  11. spurs_idiot says:

    All i will say is ….we need a striker in this transfer window…..sure we have henry…but only for 6 weeks….after that once again we have only van persie….chamakh cant score at all….park is not even on the bench, maybe consider bringing back bendtner, sure he’s not the best player but he does have goals in him……without this and a possible replacement for the uninspiring arshavin….arsenal will fail to win any trophy and also fail to qualify for the champions league……at the moment they are good enough to to only be in 5th place….. We might have a packed midfield but c’mon half of it is just dead-weight… arteta had to be played for all of the matches in the 1st half of the season just coz we cant trust any other midfield and also….nobody has a killer pass there….

  12. Dhruv says:

    Agree with the need for a new effective striker to play along RVP. But no Bendtner please, he was hopeless against Chelsea yesterday. A club with great ambitions like Arsenal deserves better.

  13. santori says:

    This should always be our priority :

    1) Title …and thereafter if not, minimum top 4. Aim high (First Squad)
    2) CLeague. (First Squad)
    3)FA Cup ( Some rotation will be necessary for these games, at least till the later stages)
    4) Carling Cup (Developmental squad)

    I felt Wenger made a grave error last season by according too much importance to this whole ‘trophy drought’ issue. He over -prioritized the Carling and we got overloaded.

    He seems more realistic this season and I am glad that the Crling Cup is back to the purpose which it should be – developmental.

    With the remaining 3 fronts this season, we should go for all of them full heartedly with the emphais on top 4 finish being a ‘minimum’ standard.

    But we should aim high and expect ourselevs to achieve to the highest possible standard.

    Giving up on CL because we feel we are not up to the rigours of competing against MIlan (in concert with domestic title) or setting our sights solely on a ‘realistic’ top 4 finish will otherwise be detrimental to our belief and handciap us further IMO.

    Therefore we go for all 3 fronts and rotate as best as we possibly can without making ready made excuses for ourselevs aforehand.;)

  14. T2T says:

    A few (~5) years ago, we were very successful in the CC when playing a very different team filled with youngsters and supported by fringe players. Let’s do the same against AV, start already now and let them play together as a team.

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