On Saturday afternoon, following a reported training ground bust-up, Arsène Wenger made the decision to drop Arsenal’s top-scorer, Alexis Sánchez to the bench against Liverpool for the crucial Premier League clash at Anfield.
The Gunners lost the game, beaten 3-1 by the Merseyside club, but rather than just three points, Wenger was the biggest loser at the weekend, with the result and his decision further weakening his position at the club.
Clichés say, you may lose the battle, but you can still win the war, but this was just another battle in a long list that the French coach has lost and rather than wave the white flag and surrender he is digging himself further into a hole, one in which his legacy might never recover.
No Bust-up With Sanchez
— Indy Football (@IndyFootball) March 6, 2017
Ahead of their tough, second-leg fixture against Bayern Munich, Wenger had to face the press and the Sánchez situation was put to the coach and he completely denied any truth in the training ground story, with pictures emerging of the coach and player shaking hands on Monday.
“Yes, completely false, but I understand that you have to fill the newspapers and we respect that,” he admitted. “When you don't win the game it's down to real stories and we have to accept that.”
“Honest and normal like with every single player. Alexis Sánchez has 15 months on his contract so the decision will depend completely on Arsenal Football Club, not anyone else.”
What is interesting from that last line is the part about ‘Arsenal Football Club’ deciding the Chilean’s future. Not Wenger, giving another subtle hint that he might not be around this summer.
“It's a team sport, our game is built on collective expression and not one individual,” Wenger said about Saturday’s defeat and his team selection. “Sánchez played in all the games when we didn't perform away from home we lost as well and that is what I think is the most important, to perform as a team.”
That may be true, but when the 28-year-old is the club’s strongest player – he has 17 goals and nine assists – those are exactly the types of fixtures when you need them most.
Arsenal Need Sanchez
It’s hard to believe that it was a tactical reason to not pick Sánchez, with 10 of his 17 goals coming on the road this season. It was in the home game against Chelsea where the former Barcelona forward scored his only goal against the top sides this term, but it’s not like the other players in the squad are carrying him.
Over the past five years, the Gunners have faced off against the current Premier League top six 21 times, and they have won just three. Six times they games have finished level and the other 12 they’ve lost.
Arsenal have scored 26 times, but conceded 47. That’s over two per game. Suggesting that the front line, or Sanchez commitment, isn’t the problem that needed addressing.
“I am ready to go to the next level. The next level up,” Wenger told BT Sport in an interview ahead of the Liverpool clash. “If somebody else comes and does that better than me, that’s fine.”
Wenger's Pride Dented
On Saturday, he picked pride over a tactic that could have potentially won the game, or at least gave them a chance, that is not the behaviour of a coach that wants to take this club to a higher level.
If they were to have a chance on Saturday, they needed players to help beat Liverpool’s press. Olivier Giroud, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck were never going to offer that same option up top.
Sánchez has a directness, a drive and a work-rate that the others can’t match. Plus, with a hand in 26 of his team’s 55 goals this term, he realistically was their biggest hope.
Whatever point Wenger was trying to make, he failed, massively.
If he was trying to assert a position of power, he needed the eleven players he picked to step up and put in a massive performance for their coach, they didn’t, and it made him look weak.
Wenger brought the forward on at half-time with his side 2-0 down, then it was Sánchez's direct run and pass that set up Welbeck for the goal that gave the away side hope.
Liverpool, who themselves were in a bit of a slump before the game, put in a performance on Saturday, reacted for their coach and then when 2-1 down, they held on and found the killer third goal.
Wenger lost a huge battle on Saturday
Sánchez now has all the power. The fans can now clearly see that they don’t have a chance without him. If there wasn’t a training ground incident, which might have swayed them in Wenger’s favour, but saying there was nothing makes him look weaker.
No matter what the player wants, £250,000-a-week, anything to extend his deal, the club are not in a powerful position to negotiate. Why would the player actually want to stay beyond this season, Wenger or not?
Arsenal have lost their way, and even with Sanchez they are a long way from finding it. This could have been the one decision that finally puts Wenger’s position in the weakest place it has ever been.