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by Paul Chronnell
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Gunners have avoided the early season crisis club tag, but the hard work starts here
Arsene Wenger, as a rule, does not enjoy international breaks but he may have spent the last 10 days in a rather more relaxed state than normal.
For a workaholic like Wenger, two weeks without a game and the prospect of welcoming back a group of fatigued and possibly injured players from different parts of the globe is not the most appealing interlude.
He did spend some time at the Uefa coaches’ forum in Switzerland last week, and also has television commitments to fulfil in France, but Wenger is a creature of habit and the endless cycle of training and matches at club level is what he craves the most.
This time last year he was reeling from not just the 8-2 thrashing at Old Trafford but also the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri that precipitated such an uncharacteristic last-minute splurge as the transfer window closed.
Twelve months on and there is no such consternation, despite the equally high-profile exits of Robin van Persie and Alex Song.
The afterglow of the 2-0 win at Anfield has taken the heat off Wenger, with the Premier League ‘crisis club’ tag attaching itself firmly to Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers, with Spurs and Andre Villas-Boas not that far behind.
Wenger will know, however, that nothing has been proved yet. After the two opening goalless draws, the Gunners needed a positive result at Anfield and certainly got one, but it has not put all the concerns over the Frenchman’s new-look side immediately to rest.
Three league games in three weeks was hardly a taxing start in any case. Now the prospect of five matches in 15 days in three different competitions before the players head off for more World Cup qualifiers will undoubtedly prove a genuine test of the resolve of the squad.
Given that this sequence includes a trip to Manchester City and ends with Chelsea’s visit to the Emirates on September 29, the likelihood of Arsenal being unbeaten and with an unblemished goals against record come the next mini-break is distinctly unlikely.
Wenger must manage his players carefully during that time. A lot of them will have played twice and done a lot of travelling in the past week, and will do the same again in early October. The time for rotation is here.
The next five days is a case in point. It is imperative that momentum in the league from the Liverpool win is maintained against Southampton, but the trip to Montpellier on Tuesday is looming.
A good start to the Champions League group stages is just as important and can set the tone for the campaign ahead, and Wenger always has a certain pride when he returns to play in France.
At least the Gunners boss finally got what he and other leading managers have long campaigned for in that the double-header internationals are now played on Friday and Tuesday, thus allowing players to return to their clubs by Thursday, and giving them reasonable preparation time for the weekend games.
However, Wenger is fully aware that key players may not be able to start both games in the next five days. While Mikel Arteta, Kieran Gibbs and Andre Santos have been clear of any international responsibilities, the rest of the first-team squad who are fit have been turning out across Europe and beyond.
Wenger has a few decisions to make, not least at the back where the return to fitness of Laurent Koscielny might mean breaking up the so far unbreachable Per Mertesacker-Thomas Vermaelen axis in the centre, although saving Koscielny for Montpellier may be the more practical route.
In midfield the likes of Santos, Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin will all come into contention, although Ramsey has had a tough week captaining Wales to two bad defeats and may also be a better bet to start on Tuesday.
Up front Olivier Giroud will be desperate to feature in a swift return to his old club Montpellier, but is unlikely to start both games, and the same goes for fellow new boys Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski.
The good news for Wenger is the recovery time after Tuesday’s game, with the Gunners having four clear days before their trip to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday week, September 23.
City begin their Champions League campaign with a trip to Real Madrid on Tuesday while Arsenal are in Montpellier so there is no advantage but, at the moment, the schedule is being kind to the Gunners.
Wenger will want his team to take full advantage, because that will undoubtedly change in the coming months.
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