It says something about modern Arsenal that ructions – be it players and managers giving each other a mouthful or team-mates squaring up to tell one another some home truths – were far more commonplace in the most successful period of Arsène Wenger’s era than in the period spent off the trophy pace. So it was Jens Lehmann used to pick a fight with Thierry Henry, Martin Keown would try to kick Dennis Bergkamp and Sol Campbell would tell Patrick Vieira to stop being lazy.
The notion there was some kind of brouhaha last week revolving around the fiery figure of Alexis Sánchez – something Wenger tried to bat away on Monday as barely significant – was interesting in that older generation players would recognise a bit of friction as a necessary part of the atmosphere within a winning squad. In the days before mega salaries and social media, the odd row was part of the fabric of the team. As Campbell recalls: “It would boil over, properly boil over, at the training ground from time to time. But that’s normal. You can’t just have it all-singing all-dancing, tickety-boo. That’s not going to work. You need to find out who is around you.”
Make no mistake, this has been a rough few weeks for Arsenal with galling defeats against Watford, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Liverpool and perhaps it is not so surprising that a few tempers have erupted. Per Mertesacker’s assessment of recent weeks was piercingly candid. “We saw on a lot of occasions that we were absolutely not ready for a fight, and that’s what I want to see – that we are up for a fight, to challenge something,” he said. “We haven’t competed a lot in recent games, we need to turn that around. That is really the focus.”
To be absolutely not ready to fight is a strong accusation to lay at Champions League regulars with aspirations to do the best they can around the top handful of the Premier League. It explains why someone as obsessively competitive as Sánchez would become frustrated, but it is also worth trying to understand why so many of the Arsenal team have a tendency to play within themselves when the pressure constricts. Mertesacker described the current atmosphere as tense and it seems that the environment and expectations make it difficult for the team to play in a relaxed way.
Wenger said: “Football is not only about fight. Yes, it is part of it, but not just that. It’s also the freedom to go for it, the freedom to play. We have to earn our freedom to play because at the moment we play a little bit with the handbrake.
“We live in a world of small margins and if you drop off a little bit it’s down to belief. On the confidence front, it always looks like you do not want to fight, but these players want to do well and I believe that 100%.”
It is a noble belief but taking the step between wanting to do well and doing well is critical.
It makes for a challenging circumstance before a Champions League game against an excellent Bayern and a salvation mission that Wenger rates as virtually impossible. He gives his team a “1-2% chance” of producing the miracle required to win 4-0 or by an even greater margin if they concede more than one along the way.
Wenger described the mood as a “difficult climate”. With players feeling the heat, the club’s future racked with uncertainty while the manager considers his next move over the contract extension still on the table, the poor form and the Sánchez question clouding the landscape, Arsenal cannot focus on much beyond just picking themselves up, dusting themselves down and trying to feel a bit better about themselves.
That 5-1 collapse at the Allianz Arena was one of Wenger’s most disappointing nights in Europe. “It’s a shock to take,” he said. The loss of Laurent Koscielny to an injury early in the game robbed Arsenal of any defensive composure and from there they buckled. This habit of having whole halves of football that are well below par has been extremely costly.
“You can miss 45 minutes and we paid for it,” Wenger said. “So we have to show 90 minutes of commitment. We finished top of the group, PSG finished second and they beat Barcelona 4-0. Why? Because Barcelona missed their game [in Paris] completely. Everything is a negative at the moment. Basically, the teams that have gone out in the group stage are happy, but we have gone through and we are in crisis.”
Regaining some pride against Bayern would be a stepping stone and Sánchez is expected to be back in the starting lineup. Whatever the turbulence, it is hard to argue that Arsenal are better off without the player who has provided the most this season in terms of goal-making and taking.
That said, Wenger wants the team to be the story, not any individual. “You have to accept that a team is made up of 25 different personalities. So I don’t want people to change. I just want them on board to achieve something together.”