FA Cup defeat for Arsenal could spell the end for Wenger
It’s all come down to this for poor Arsenal: a Cup semifinal against a lower division side. Believe it or not, a fair number of people expect the Gunners to lose.
Arsenal take on Wigan at Wembley stadium (live on FOX Sports 2, Saturday, 11:30am ET) in a game that will define their season. Win it, and they will face either Hull or Sheffield United in the final on May 17. Lose it, and it is likely that Arsene Wenger will be heading for the exit, ending his reign as the Premier League’s longest-tenured manager. On Thursday, Wenger visibly bristled when asked about his future, curtly telling the press that "I don’t want to talk about that today."
His reaction speaks volumes about the pressure on the Gunners, who have collapsed late after spending much of the season atop the table. Once a defensively solid side with an eye for goal, Arsenal have been reduced to clawing for a spot in next yearâs Champions League.
The essential weaknesses of this Arsenal side are now well known: they are a neat-passing side that lacks grit down the spine and a cutting edge up top. Striker Olivier Giroud is nowhere near enough of a scoring threat to take pressure off his back line, and over the last few matches, the team has come to look both scared and jaded. Most damningly, when Arsenal have been faced with high-pressure, must-win matchups, they have lost, and often in humiliating fashion.
Wigan - who, by the way, are the defending FA Cup champions - are not chopped liver. They have already ejected three Premier League sides from this tournament and, barring disaster, will be in the playoffs for promotion back to the Premier League. Skillfully managed by Uwe Rosler, Wigan slumped to their first home defeat since December this past weekend against Millwall, but are a robust, solid smash-and-grab type of team.
On Thursday, Rosler indicated that he would play a bunker and counter game against an Arsenal side that he expects will see a lot more of the ball. "We have to put a lot in," he said. "We cannot give the ball away against Arsenal or it will be a long evening."
Adding to Arsenal’s worries is their own history at the new Wembley. The Gunners have lost both times they have played here, and by the same 2-1 scoreline. Chelsea ejected them at this stage in 2009 and Birmingham memorably beat them in 2011 in the last minute to hoist the League Cup.
"We have to go back to basics," said Wenger. "We must defend better than we did at Everton. We are still in a position where we can do very well, and we just must focus on finishing as well as we can."
Easier said than done for an Arsenal side who have displayed such frailty at the back that Wenger admitted it was "the surprise" of his season. Damagingly, he did not offer any solutions.
And then there is the suggestion of dissent within the ranks. Santi Cazorla struck a nerve Thursday when he said that his side "lacks a winning mentality" and "you can get used to not fighting". Cazorla went on to implicitly criticize the club for not bulking up the ranks more, echoing many fan complaints.
Cazorla’s timing raised some eyebrows, coming ahead of the Cup tie, but he is correct as Arsenal may be missing as many as 11 players for this match. Stars like Jack Wilshere, Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott and Laurent Koscielny are all out injured; Tomas Rosicky, Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are doubtful, and Mathieu Flamini is suspended. The good news, such as it is, is that Aaron Ramsey is back to full fitness and will start the match. Normal Cup keeper Lukasz Fabianski will also start.
Should Arsenal fall here, they face a long run-in. The club has not won a trophy since 2005 (the FA Cup, in fact, with a win over Manchester United on penalties) and another year without silverware is thought to be too much for Arsenal’s board to take. While Wenger enjoys the support of majority owner Stan Kroenke, this seasonâs collapse — and Wenger’s own doubts — have added to an air of uncertainty about the club. Combine that with a possible failure to play in the Champions League, and all of Arsenal’s loot - reportedly some $170m for summer transfers — may not be enough to attract the caliber of talent the Londoners really need to stare down the Manchester giants, Liverpool and Chelsea.
Should they fail Saturday, we may well be seeing the end of an era in north London. Whether or not this is a good or a bad thing is up to Arsenal’s fans to decide.