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Arsène Wenger’s Management Acrobatics

The discomfort associated with Arsenal’s 2-1, 120-minute win over Reading in the FA Cup semifinal has prompted questions about the four changes manager Arsène Wenger made to the starting lineup.

Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and center forward Danny Welbeck returned to the positions they had occupied in the previous round’s win at Manchester United, while fullbacks Mathieu Debuchy and Kieran Gibbs came into the starting lineup for the first time since January 11 and March 4, respectively.

None performed at a level to suggest that he will be a regular starter for Arsenal’s remaining matches. The one possible exception is Debuchy, who hinted at the defensive stability the manager might prefer in high-stakes games.

Despite these players’ struggles and the team’s travails overall, their selection represented a success. Here’s why:

  1. Arsenal won the match and maintained its impeccable, eight-week run of results
  2. Several potentially important players logged time in a high-pressure match
  3. The manager built a body of evidence for future personnel decisions

These are meaningful objectives to achieve in the context of a season, even if myopic fans and pundits prefer to focus on the tight final score against a lower-ranked Reading side.

The perspective of time

Wenger expresses an intriguing sense of time. His public statements send a message to his players to limit their focus to the next game. It’s almost a reflex for him. “I believe now let’s focus on our next game,” he said during his FA Cup semifinal press conference. (Available on Arsenal Player)

In statements that are less automatic, Wenger lets on that he’s not focused only on the next match. He’s looking at the scope of a full season.

“Let’s finish the season well,” he remarked over the weekend. “We have six games, a big game next weekend, and I believe we have the spirit, which is encouraged by the results.”

Here, Wenger is balancing the need to restrict his players’ attention to the immediate task with an acknowledgement that the immediate task is important but not definitive. The full measure of this team will be its cumulative results over a season.

To meet expectations over that assessment period, Wenger has to prepare the entire 25-man squad to compete from August to May in a 38-match league season and three cup competitions. And throughout he has to put each member of the squad in position to adjust to events.

Providing a taste of the action

The two types of events that most directly concern players are injuries and dips in form. To help them prepare for those possibilities affecting themselves and teammates, the manager must keep more than his top 11 players sharp.

One obvious reason is that any player could quickly become essential.

For example, starting center half Per Mertesacker’s ankle injury on Saturday renders the readiness of Gabriel vital. Integrating the Brazilian relatively quickly after his January arrival, with starts against Middlesbrough, Everton, and Newcastle, looks wise now. He was not paralyzed by the high-pressure environment of an FA Cup semifinal, and he’ll be ready if needed against Chelsea. That wouldn’t have been the case had the manager stuck with the strong defensive partnership of Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny throughout 2015.

Wenger also has to weigh the risks and the adaptability of specific players. That was the scenario with Debuchy, as, unbeknownst to supporters, recent starting right back Hector Bellerin had been suffering from injuries of his own.

“It was a bit risky,” Wenger admitted. “Bellerin has played recently with some ankle problems, and Debuchy was back, so I thought it was a good moment to do it.”

“[H]e is a French international and must be capable of playing in a semifinal against Reading.”

Just as important as these assessments is the head man’s management of players’ egos. He has to insure the commitment of a group of young, highly paid professionals whose careers have depended on single-mindedness and self-regard. They may not grasp their important role in the season’s arc from the substitute’s bench.

To maintain solidarity in an era of professional and personal distraction, Wenger affords them action. “You wait, you wait, at some stage you have to play a game,” he explained.

Building a case for personnel decisions

Seizing these opportunities to show one’s qualities and contributions is the charge of the professional athlete. It’s one that midfielder Francis Coquelin answered emphatically in January.

Wenger has admitted that he didn’t foresee Coquelin’s success; it would be hard to find anyone who did. He developed a faith from Coquelin’s work in training and his play on loan. But that faith had to be supported by evidence of consistent match performances.

Building this body of evidence is another reason for reintroducing the four players to the starting lineup against Reading. Their performances lend support to the manager’s case when he decides about their involvement.

“Ideally, you want everybody to be happy,” Wenger revealed in discussing his changes against Reading. “It is part of the job, and the most important thing is to get results, for the fans and everybody involved with the club.”

With that as the priority, Wenger now has more points of information should players or their representatives approach him with appeals for more prominent roles. He could, I think, rebuff arguments from Saturday’s four additions that they should take those positions from the starters of eight consecutive Premier League matches.

Yet I doubt Wenger will make such a definitive statement. He knows he’ll probably need each of the players — perhaps in a starting role against Chelsea (Debuchy), in a different starting position later (Welbeck), in important substitute appearances (Gibbs and Welbeck), or in the FA Cup final (Szczesny).

As a result, he’ll continue the acrobatic act of preparing and motivating these elite athletes. That might involve decisions and communications, such as those surrounding the Reading match, that seem puzzling to supporters focused on single performances. They’re more understandable, though, if we consider the relevant time horizon, the abrupt changes in fortunes of professional athletes, and the complex requirements of managing a group of them.

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