On the one hand, this was a game Arsenal had to win. On the other hand, Arsene Wenger was prepared to take a massive gamble with his goalkeeper…
If the Daily Mail are to be believed (and their record is patchy on foreigners coming to England and ‘taking’ jobs), Arsene Wenger met with goalkeeper David Ospina this summer and assured him that he would play important games for Arsenal this season.
The story goes that he was grateful to the Colombian for a series of unspectacular but steady performances that helped seal third place last season so when Ospina came to him understandably worried about his future after the signing of Petr Cech, Wenger put his hand on the goalkeeper’s shoulder and said (we’re guessing here): “Don’t worry, you’ll play.”
“I need to give Ospina games. He is a top-level goalkeeper,” said Arsene Wenger in the same Monday press conference in which he said: “You have to win your home games if you want to qualify from the group stage, it’s as simple as that.” Talk about mixed messages.
So on the one hand, Arsenal must win this match. On the other, Arsene Wenger will not play his strongest side. He would not rest Alexis Sanchez if his left leg was hanging by a single ligament and there was no question of Francis Coquelin not starting despite just a handful of training sessions after injury. And yet Wenger felt like he could exchange Cech – carrying a minor calf injury that did not prevent him facing Leicester – for an inferior goalkeeper.
Ospina is no clown but he is also no Cech. Granted, his performance against West Ham illustrated that the former Chelsea stalwart is not immune to errors, but you would back Cech over Ospina nine times out of ten. And so would Wenger. So did he gamble with Arsenal’s proud Champions League record for the sake of a promise made in the summer? That admirable/infuriating loyalty has reared its pock-marked head again.
Ospina was by no means alone in being culpable for a disastrous 3-2 defeat in a match that even cynics expected the Gunners to win. This was not Typical Arsenal or Peak Arsenal, as the Gunners had always made kebab meat out of the Greeks at home; this was Atypical Arsenal, shooting themselves in the foot well ahead of their last-16 tradition.
The defence was lax and the central midfield was too often bypassed, with only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and the wonderful Alexis Sanchez emerging with any credit. They must feel equally as let down by their teammates as their manager, who sent exactly the wrong message by selecting Ospina over Cech.
Wenger presumably gave his players the same rhetoric as he gave the media, that this was a game Arsenal absolutely had to win. At that point, they may have all turned towards Ospina and wondered why he was playing ahead of a veteran of 11 Champions League campaigns. That is no excuse for a lackadaisical performance, but it could well have set the tone.
Wenger predictably cited ‘bad luck’ after the game. But you don’t need half as much luck if you don’t take massive gambles.