Arsene Wenger fears that Arsenal fans' unrest could harm his players in title run-in
Arsène Wenger has admitted he is worried that the “relentless” pressure from Arsenal fans could harm his players’ confidence in the final months of the season but has described Saturday’s comeback as a potential turning point.
An eight-point gap to leaders Leicester City leaves Arsenal with little room for error in the final nine matches but, as well as salvaging a point against Tottenham Hotspur, it was arguably even more significant for the team to ease the wider discontent among supporters.
The atmosphere at the Emirates on Wednesday during the 2-1 defeat by Swansea City was extremely tense and, although the mood can shift quickly, there is clearly the possibility of significant unrest should the season fizzle out. It is largely a build-up of frustration at the 12-year wait since the club’s last Premier League title, with back-to-back FA Cup wins in 2014 and 2015 having earned Wenger only limited extra leeway in the eyes of many fans.
Wenger described the pressure from Arsenal fans immediately after Saturday’s match as relentless and, ahead of tomorrow’s FA Cup fifth-round replay against Hull City, he was asked whether it was getting to him and the players.
“I prefer that the fans are happy but I’m more worried that it can get to the players’ confidence level,” he said. “I feel we have shown a great response as a team that we can deal with that.”
Wenger, though, is unsure whether Saturday’s performance will win over those disaffected supporters but he does think that the last 20 minutes of the match can “spark” the season.
“You can feel sorry for yourself or respond straight away next game – that’s why I think the group is healthy and there’s a good mentality,” he said. The equaliser was scored by Alexis Sánchez, who sent ripples through the dressing room last week by questioning whether the Arsenal players were “hungry” enough to win the Premier League. Wenger cryptically referred to an improvement in Sánchez’s attitude after Saturday’s game. It was his first league goal since October. “He had a strong match, a better attitude, a team attitude and looked always dangerous – there was room for him to score another goal,” he said.
Wenger was also encouraged by Danny Welbeck’s first start as the main central striker for more than year but revealed that there is ongoing concern among the medical staff over whether he can play the full 90 minutes.
“When Danny Welbeck is determined and really goes for it and he is ready for the fight, he has all the attributes,” said Wenger. “Someone is telling me always ‘in the Premier League he cannot play the whole game’ but I have seen what he has done in training.
“Even when I took him off you could still see that if needed he had a little burst to go. Medically they have questioned his knee is not true completely and so they are still a bit worried but he looks perfect.”
Welbeck himself said it would still “take a while” to recover full match fitness after almost 10 months out. “I don’t feel as sharp as I did before my operation and I don’t know how long it will take but I’m getting fitter and stronger each week,” he said.
Wenger also agreed that his team needed “to stop shooting themselves in the foot” at critical moments following the 55th-minute dismissal of Francis Coquelin when they were leading 1-0.
Captain Per Mertesacker clearly also felt that the players had answered doubts about their character.
“For a team with ‘low confidence’ and ‘no belief’ we played pretty well,” he said. “I think we have shown great character. We criticise each other enough in the dressing room and we demand a lot more from ourselves than just playing like we do not care. We meet every day and speak a lot with each other. The first 15 minutes were absolutely amazing. I have never played in such a demanding game. I think we turned up very aggressively. You could feel the pressure. I think it’s a good start to an interesting end of the season.”
Mertesacker was also adamant that the Emirates atmosphere would not be a problem. “There was tension here from the start and we responded really well,” he said. “In midweek, the expectation was there and when we don’t perform. There was a bit of nervousness in the crowd but I can understand that. As long as we support each other and back each other, that will take us to another level. You embrace even more playing at home. I think it gives you more energy.”
Two men, meanwhile, were arrested for public order offences after fans clashed in the streets around White Hart Lane before the match.