What Arsène Wenger must do to pull Arsenal out of their slump | David Hytner

David Hytner
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Mesut Özil has been unproductive for some time and conspiracy theorists have linked it to the impasse over his new contract at Arsenal.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images</span>
Mesut Özil has been unproductive for some time and conspiracy theorists have linked it to the impasse over his new contract at Arsenal. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images

1 Resolve the Wenger issue

“I’ve always been very clear in my mind about what I will do and I will remain like that,” Arsène Wenger said on Thursday. “I think it’s a subject that, at the moment, is not sorted completely out.” So, that’s all clear, then. Another week, another Wenger press conference and another dose of the pantomime that has become the issue of whether the manager will stay or go at the end of the season. Oh yes he will. Oh no he won’t. The club ought to sell tickets or, at the very least, beam it out live across east Asia. Oh, wait. Wenger maintains that the subject is not the most important at the club and it is not the cause of any instability. Nonsense. It has come to cast long shadows over everything, dividing the fan base and underpinning the mood of stasis and frustration. The players are as much in the dark as everybody else. Yes, they should be professional and focus solely on the next game but give them an excuse and it can get inside their minds. Clarity from the top is essential and long overdue.

2 Show some backbone

When things have gone against Arsenal in matches, it has been startling to see how comprehensively they have unravelled. It has been impossible not to question their backbone or the culture that Wenger has fostered, in which he rarely takes players to task for sub-standard work. The storms might rage around the club but inside it is mostly calm and comfortable. Perhaps too comfortable. In the wake of the defeat at West Bromwich Albion two weeks ago it was remarkable to hear Wenger suggest that the players might have underestimated their opponents or had their minds on the international break. “It is a strange season,” Wenger added, “because it just looks to have escaped from us in moments; a fraction that was on the other side. Things went just against us and we could not respond. It is a weird feeling.” Wenger maintains he is convinced by the mental strength of his players. “It is a good moment to show it,” he said.

3 Recalibrate defensively

If the FA Cup victories over non-league opposition are taken out of the equation, Arsenal have conceded 21 goals in their past seven matches. They looked particularly vulnerable when Laurent Koscielny was not on the field in both legs of the Champions League against Bayern Munich but the problems have been collective and they run deeper than merely the back four. The overall balance of the team, between pushing forward and holding, has been out of sync and Wenger faces a tactical dilemma for Sunday’s home game against Manchester City – one, he says, “I absolutely have to win”. Pep Guardiola will pack his City team with attacking threats – David Silva, Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling are in form – and, if Arsenal are too open, they could be taken apart.

4 Reignite Özil

Mesut Özil has not started a game since 15 February. He was rested against Sutton United, missed the trip to Liverpool because of flu and was fit enough only for the bench against Bayern. Wenger used him as a substitute against Lincoln City before Özil pulled out of West Brom with a hamstring niggle – which did not prevent him from joining up with Germany. On 11 February he had endured a nightmare against Hull City. “He was not completely confident technically,” Wenger said, afterwards. “He misses chances [at the moment] that don’t look unfeasible for him to score.” There have been excuses for Özil’s non-selection of late but the suspicion has been that Wenger might have liked to drop him anyway. The playmaker has been unproductive for some time and conspiracy theorists have linked it to the impasse over his new contract. Without Özil at West Brom Arsenal hogged 77% of possession and managed only two shots on target, showing that the recent lack of cutting edge is not all on him. But when Özil fires, so, invariably, does the team. Wenger needs him to get his mojo back.

5 Pray that Sánchez stays fit

Despite his stroppy on-field body language and the training ground bust-up that led to Wenger dropping him at Liverpool, Alexis Sánchez remains Arsenal’s great hope. It is increasingly likely that the Chile forward will push to leave in the summer, when he will enter the final year on his contract, but he will play at full throttle until then because it is the only way that he knows. Wenger talked about how the change of scene provided by the international break might have benefited some of his players and Sánchez certainly enjoyed himself back in Chile; he scored in the World Cup qualifying win over Venezuela on Tuesday to equal Marcelo Salas’s scoring record for the country. Sánchez had been forced out of the West Brom game with an ankle injury but, happily, the damage did not prove serious. The Arsenal support will not want any further scares.

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