Wenger to rotate key men as title push takes top priority
Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle Utd
Published 04/01/2016 | 02:30
Arsene Wenger believes that any team have their own identifiable personality, and his certainty that this latest offspring has the character to again win the Premier League remains evident in every nuance of his decision-making.
The start of Arsenal's FA Cup defence looms with Sunderland's visit to the Emirates Stadium next Saturday afternoon but, just as he did at the beginning of the European campaign in September, the Premier League is being prioritised in the team's preparation and selection.
And so, having beaten Newcastle United to extend their lead over Leicester City at the top of the Premier League table to two points, Wenger promptly granted the players a mini mid-season break.
Arsenal do not play again in the league until visiting Liverpool on January 13 and, even with the potential additions of Alexis Sanchez and Mohamed Elneny, it is clear that key players will now be rotated for the FA Cup third-round match against Sunderland.
Petr Cech, Hector Bellerin, Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, Aaron Ramsey, Mathieu Flamini, Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud are among those likely to be given some form of respite, albeit with a small warning from Wenger.
"I will give them a couple of days, an extra rest, but you never know what shape they come back in," he said. "It depends what you do when you have a rest. You can come back more tired."
The smile on Wenger's face suggested that he trusts these players, particularly as there was an added satisfaction in how they had grafted to what was a third win in four festive fixtures.
"Another aspect of our team was tested," Wenger said. "You fight not to concede a goal. You must not panic and wait for your chance. We have been more questioned on that aspect than how we play football."
He is right, even if that familiar narrative about Arsenal being soft-centred and lacking in proven winners has become increasingly redundant.
Within this current squad, Arsenal now have players who have won the World Cup, the Club World Cup, the Champions League, the Copa America, the Premier League, the Spanish league, the Italian league, the French league and the domestic cup competitions in England, Spain and Germany.
Giroud, for one, is adamant that this experience will be significant in the coming months.
"To be champions in a season you need talent, of course, but you need a bit of luck and sometimes you cannot play a fantastic game," he said.
"The Montpellier experience will fully help me. The older players need to bring confidence to the youngest and lead them. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don't care. All together we are going to do it."
That Arsenal are learning to win in different ways was repeatedly evident in 2015 in victories over Manchester City, Manchester United and Bayern Munich, but then also in both the FA Cup final and their Champions League eliminator against Olympiakos.
"I think a team always has a charisma," Wenger said. "If you look at the team as a unit, it is like a person.
"When you are a long time in the job, you can feel if there is something in there or not. They are more experienced.
"When we moved into the stadium here, when many players were 23 or 24, on their day we could play everybody off the park but when you had to dig deep, come out with your knowledge and your experience, it was a bit more difficult. It is different."
If a team can really be likened to one specific individual, it is easy to see how the Arsenal side of George Graham was embodied by Tony Adams before Wenger's greatest teams evolved from the character of Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry.
In Ozil, Sanchez and Cech, Arsenal do again have three truly world-class players whose personalities are becoming imprinted on the team's collective outlook.
While Ozil was the catalyst against Bournemouth last week, it was Cech who made a crucial contribution to deny Newcastle's Georginho Wijnaldum before Koscielny scored his scruffy late winner.
Recent Arsenal teams rarely converted such lacklustre performances into three points and, in what is his 20th season in English football, Wenger is adamant that the gap between top and bottom has never been smaller.
"Everyone can lose everywhere," he said. "Is this the worst league ever? Or is it the best league ever?
"I haven't analysed it but you can go both ways. It's something which is new."
Newcastle manager Steve McClaren said: "I'm scratching my head as to how we didn't get something from that game.
"I don't think many teams will come here and play so well and not get anything."
After a bright start, Arsenal faded dramatically when they failed to get an early lead, and Newcastle played with confidence in testing wintry conditions. Georginio Wijnaldum could and should have scored a hat-trick.
Arsenal did not have a shot on target in the first half and, as Cech looked impregnable, Newcastle seemed to settle for a draw as their time-wasting tactics showed, and eventually Daryl Janmaat was booked for repeatedly stalling on his throw-ins.
Wenger tried to improve his lot by replacing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with Joel Campbell in the 68th minute, and Arsenal were ahead three minutes later.
Ozil sent in a corner from the right, Giroud fought hardest to nod on a loose ball and Koscielny scored from close range.