Something very damaging happened to Arsenal at Anfield on Saturday.
It wasn’t so much being routinely taken apart by a big team in a must-win fixture – we’ve come to expect that from them at this stage – but by dropping the only player that displays the talent and mindset the rest of the team should be aiming for, Arsene Wenger has inadvertently exposed the shocking fragility that runs right to the core of that club.
While Wenger insisted that Alexis Sánchez was dropped for tactical reasons, i.e. that he wanted to play a more direct game and Olivier Giroud was better suited for that purpose, leaving him out of the starting lineup altogether was far too big a risk to take against a Liverpool side that tends not to lose these types of matches.
It has since been reported by multiple sources that Alexis was dropped due to a training ground altercation with his teammates, the last hope of a man clearly disillusioned with what is going on around him, in a power-play by Wenger to remind the Chilean who was still in charge there.
Admonishing his teammates for their weak-willed mentality shouldn’t have resulted in the forward being punished – Wenger should be praising his attitude. He could use more players that are willing to fight, really fight, for what they want to achieve.
Arsenal are not a club where winners thrive, not anymore anyway. They can beat 80% of the teams in the Premier League simply by being better than them, but put them in a pressure situation – like at Anfield on Saturday, or in the Allianz Arena, or Stamford Bridge, or Old Trafford – and they wilt. They wilt like a flower in the desert and at this point, it’s become a recurring theme.
Sánchez sees them for what they are, he sees the general spinelessness coursing through the veins of that squad and he’s become markedly and publicly frustrated at being the only one trying to reverse it. He sees Mesut Ozil, the other would-be superstar of the Arsenal squad, quite happy to settle into the malaise around him and sink down to their level rather than try to drag them up.
This has been coming, of course. Sánchez’s tantrums during matches have been replayed countless times this season, and his refusal (so far, at least) to sign a new contract is indicative of a player who is very unsure of the direction the club is heading in. The 28-year-old as the one to bring his feelings of frustration, but by banishing hm to the bench for such an important fixture, Wenger confirmed that the problem is mutual.
The manager raised a few eyebrows last week when he dragged the former Barcelona forward’s performance against Bayern down with the rest of the players. Indeed, Wenger seems to be of the opinion that lashing out at his teammate is a way of shirking his own responsibility. That is the case, to some extent, bur Sánchez’s strong words and actions are not unjustified. It might look bad to see a player so visibly irate with his colleagues, but if they need shaming into action then so be it.
What happened at Liverpool on Saturday was as predictable for Arsenal fans as it was frustrating. Their one bit of hope from the first half was that Coutinho, Lallana, Mané and Firmino hadn’t quite destroyed the visitors to the point where 2-0 at half time was a salvageable scoreline – provided their star player was brought in from the cold quickly after the restart.
That moment came at half-time, and Alexis Sánchez’s introduction brought about a change in Arsenal – as it was always going to – and the Chilean played a big role in halving the deficit early in the second half as he set up Danny Welbeck’s goal.
By then, however, the damage was done – as the Gunners half-heartedly pushed for an equaliser Liverpool punished them on the counter-attack and Gini Wijnaldum duly made it 3-1 in stoppage time.
What happens now, of course, is that while speculation continues to hover over Wenger’s future at the club beyond the end of the season, Sánchez’s is that bit more certain. He allegedly wanted to leave last summer but was convinced to stay with the promise of a sustained title challenge.
Yet here we are almost twelve months later, another Champions League hammering, another title challenge falling to pieces, more question marks about Wenger’s ability to lead this team forward and the mentality of the players themselves. Sánchez is too good for this, and he knows it.
HANDSHAKE KLAXON! Sanchez and Wenger shake on it at Arsenal’s training ground despite rift over the Chilean’s conduct (Reuters) pic.twitter.com/oMHkfOUBYM
— Times Sport (@TimesSport) March 6, 2017
Wenger and Sánchez shook hands at training on Monday morning, but the relationship between these two, and between the player and his teammates, may have moved past breaking point. The feelings may have calmed down but the issues remain.
Arsenal face Bayern again this week, already 5-1 down from the first leg and effectively out of the Champions League for another year. History suggests that they will claim a draw or narrow win against their disinterested opponents and Wenger will then point to the side’s “mental strength” while once again failing to address the elephant in the room.