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Press Conference Analysis: Arsene Wenger discusses goalkeeping rotation, Xhaka and midfield options

Press Conference Analysis: Arsene Wenger discusses goalkeeping rotation, Xhaka and midfield options

Arsene Wenger’s pre-Hull press conference was delayed due to heavy traffic, but having kept the assembled media waiting for some hours he duly arrived. Arsenal are looking for their third successive Premier League victory this Saturday, and travel to Humberside having rescued a valuable point with a 1-1 draw against PSG on Tuesday. As tends to be the case, there was a good deal of scepticism and anxiety around the club at the start of the season, but a wave of optimism took over following an impressive performance at Watford and the purchases of Lucas Perez and Shkodran Mustafi. A dose of realism has been served up by two scratchy performances against Southampton and PSG, and fans will be keen to see a more cohesive display tomorrow.

Wenger confirmed that Petr Cech will be restored between the posts, despite David Ospina’s excellent Champions League display. The Frenchman was keen to stress the quality of both his goalkeepers, saying:

“The decision [to play Ospina against PSG] was questioned. I can understand but I have two world class goalkeepers.”

 

Many pundits have said that playing his second choice goalkeeper in Europe is just ‘the way Wenger does things’, but that’s not quite true. This is Arsenal’s 19th consecutive season in the Champions League, and for 17 of those campaigns he played his first choice goalkeeper in group stage matches. This has been a very recent policy; since Cech joined the club in fact. We can only speculate as why he has started doing this. Perhaps it is due to Cech’s age; the former Chelsea goalkeeper is 35 now and it could be that he needs regular rest.

A more likely explanation is that playing Ospina in cup competitions was a condition on which the Colombian agreed to stay at the club. Regardless of your individual opinion, he is a well-regarded goalkeeper who has impressed at international level. There would be no shortage of buyers should he decide to seek a number one position somewhere else; Ospina is good enough to be the first choice goalkeeper at a good Europa League club, at least. Having such an established back-up goalkeeper is a luxury, and the only way keep them is to give them some game time.

Elsewhere, Wenger confirmed that Theo Walcott should be fit enough to be in squad for Hull after recovering from a minor knee injury. Aaron Ramsey is still out with a hamstring injury, with Wenger stressing that he wants to be ‘cautious’ with him. The Welshman has a history of going down with soft tissue injuries, so a circumspect approach is understandable. In fact, Wenger’s discipline in not using key players who he deems short of fitness has been a feature of this season. He was quite firm in his decision to give Olivier Giroud, Laurent Koscielny and Mesut Ozil extended breaks following the Euros, while Granit Xhaka has been bedded in slowly. Bearing in mind Wenger once played Cesc Fabregas against Barcelona with a broken bone, this is a different approach.

 

Speaking of Xhaka, there has been a combination of confusion and frustration among Gooners over his lack of starts thus far. There were a few spurious rumours that Wenger did not ‘rate him’, but that is self-evidently nonsense given that he compared him to Emmanuel Petit a matter of weeks ago. Arsenal’s longest serving manager said:

“Every week he’s stronger and better. I think he will play a big part this season. He has the stature, the power, the strength.”

“For many players it took some time to get into the team, it happens.”

The Arsenal boss have bought into the use of data and analytics with some enthusiasm in recent years, and it seems as if the fitness levels of individual players are shaping his selections at present. He has opted for a midfield pairing of Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin in the last two matches, an axis that worked well throughout 2015 but one that many fans hoped Arsenal would evolve from. Once again, Wenger stressed that his selections were informed by the compatibility of partnerships rather than individual quality:

“It’s not about his quality. For me it’s about pairs that work well. Coquelin and Cazorla played well together.”

Many though Aaron Ramsey and Xhaka would be the Gunners’ first choice midfield pairing, and it is worth noting that Xhaka has been held back while Ramsey has been injured. Perhaps Cazorla and Coquelin are keeping their seats warm for them.

Featured image: All rights reserved by Alex Hannam

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