Arsène Wenger believes that his team have a “good opportunity to change history” tomorrow when they go to Stamford Bridge, the ground where they lost 6-0 six months ago. But whether they will learn from their past mistakes, rather than repeat them, will only become clear on the pitch.
The issue tomorrow is for Wenger to identify precisely what went wrong in that game (or in the 6-3 defeat at Manchester City, or in the 5-1 loss at Anfield), and to find a solution. But the language Wenger used to describe the game suggested that he understood the defeat owed more to bad luck than bad patterns.
“That was accidental on the day, we were 2-0 down after 10 minutes and down to 10 men,” Wenger said at his press conference yesterday, when asked about his team’s susceptibility against fast starts. “In a position where you have to come out with 10 men and try to attack, you are always exposed to counter-attacks. It was, of course, a very bad memory, but football is not made of history, it is made of performance and performance in the next game that counts. That is what we want to do.”
Arsenal certainly do need to play well, but Wenger was asked whether he would change his approach to something more defensive or reactive, and he did not promise that he would. “You have to find a balance between nullifying their strengths but without forgetting to express your strengths,” he said. “At the end of the day, in a game like that, our performance will be vital. I believe that it is very important that we focus and concentrate on us having a great determination, a great desire and a great hunger to have a great performance – the way we want to play.”
Determination, desire and hunger are all admirable and important but Arsenal’s poor record in these big games stems as much from their openness, how easy it is to score against them and their lack of control. If Arsenal want to make it difficult for Chelsea they may well need to play differently, at least sitting in until half-time and then trying to hit Chelsea on the break.
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Rather than digging in, restricting their full-backs, maintaining a two-man defensive shield in front of the back four, Wenger is keen to go toe-to-toe with Chelsea instead, with an emphasis on possession as the means to defend. “Our two centre-backs will, of course, have to have [Diego Costa] in the eye, but for us to have the ball is even better,” Wenger said. “When we have the ball they cannot serve him.”
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This approach has not worked in the past – Wenger has not beaten Jose Mourinho in 11 attempts – but the Frenchman is confident of a different outcome this time. “In life you must always think you are there to change what happened before, or you are fatalistic,” he said. “A competitive guy is somebody who wants to make history and change what happened before.”
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Arsenal are very keen to put all that right this weekend. Wenger spoke in the language of atonement yesterday. “We never forget that day and we have an opportunity to put it right,” he said. “We, of course, are hugely determined and have a big hunger to put that right on Sunday. We have an opportunity to do it and I am confident that we will take the chance to do it.”
Wenger was confident that his squad would want to do the same after their humiliation last season. “The players will want to put things right after last season and will be up for it on the day.”
Wenger took some confidence from how Arsenal responded to that defeat, losing just one of their last eight league games and securing the FA Cup, their first major trophy for nine years. “On the other hand, I must say that afterwards we showed great strength,” Wenger said. “The way we responded until the end of the season would not have happened at many clubs. We were very strong until the end of the season. I will never forget that day, but was very proud with how we responded.”
The memory of that mauling last March still affects Wenger. It was his 1,000th match as Arsenal manager and he described it as a “massive, massive disappointment” and the “lowest point of last season”. When asked if it was a “bad day”, he laughed and said, “No, it was horrendous”.
But has he learnt? Tomorrow will tell.