By Rob Kelly
“The difficulty is finding the right balance between rotation and the balance of the team without destabilising it. Therefore you sometimes have to limit the numbers of rotation.” - Arsène Wenger
The Boxing Day fixture remains arguably the most iconic, and cherished, of the entire English football calendar. Whether the games are played in a hail of sleet and snow or in a blaze of unseasonal sunshine, grounds around the country are packed to the rafters for this most anachronistic of traditions.
For while the rest of Europe puts its feet up for a well-earned winter break, the Premier League moves through the gears, hitting us with game after game in quick succession. It may be a thrilling time for the football fan, but for the players involved it can be an intense and draining schedule - especially for those who have not experienced it before.
Take Alexis Sanchez. The Chile international has spent much of his professional career in Europe, firstly in Italy and then Spain, where the winter break is long established. This year, he is facing a punishing schedule of four games over the next 10 days - it is enough to tire even this seemingly inexhaustible character.
“It’s a shock to the system for everybody who is not used to it,” Arsène Wenger told Arsenal Player. “They are mentally used to a break over Christmas when they can see their family. The players who are from South America used to go home and of course in England they cannot do it. You have to tell them, ‘Be careful, in England there’s no stop in winter’. Many of them suffer physically.”
The answer is to carefully rotate the squad but, as Wenger admits, it can be tough to find a level of consistency when you constantly have to tweak the team to deal with the demands of the fixture list.
“The difficulty is finding the right balance between rotation and the balance of the side without destabilising it. Therefore you sometimes have to limit the numbers of rotation,” he said. “Secondly, it’s easier to rotate in the offensive positions than in the defensive positions, where the understanding of each other is very important. You try to combine and you also have to look at the individual fatigue factor.”
With such a punishing schedule, the return of Mathieu Debuchy after a three-month absence has been particularly welcome. The Frenchman has played almost the entirety of his career as a right back, but has been deployed in the centre of defence for the past two games - and has been mightily impressive.
Wenger’s decision to start the 29-year-old - rather than Calum Chambers - alongside Per Mertesacker at Anfield last weekend raised some eyebrows, but it was vindicated by another assured display. Debuchy even weighed in with his first Arsenal goal, and the manager was delighted with how he performed in an unfamiliar position.
You need less running capacity in the centre than on the flanks, and because he just came back from injury, that position has suited him betterWenger on Debuchy
“You like to have players who have experience and commitment [at centre back],” Wenger said. “He has that. One thing that was in my head as well was that he is good in the air despite his size. In England, that is important. You need less running capacity in the centre than on the flanks, and because he just came back from injury, that position for the first few games has suited him better.
“[Before signing him] I watched him at the World Cup closely because I was watching every France game. That convinced me that he’s reliable and committed, that his timing going forward is very efficient and overall his game is intelligent. There are similarities with Sagna but he got in front of Sagna at the World Cup. What I saw convinced me he was the right buy.”
The Gunners could also be boosted by the return of Tomas Rosicky after the Czech international recovered from the thigh injury he sustained against Southampton at the start of the month. Elsewhere, David Ospina may be back in the matchday squad, while Yaya Sanogo has also been passed fit.
The omens are good for Arsenal as QPR head to Emirates Stadium. The west Londoners have never won a Premier League fixture on Boxing Day, they have failed to score in five of their last six visits to the Gunners and they have lost all eight of their away games this season.
However, Harry Redknapp has only lost five of the 18 games he has taken charge of against his boyhood club, while his side come into this fixture on a high after their thrilling comeback victory against West Bromwich Albion last weekend.
I’m convinced it’s not only Charlie Austin who can do that - there are some more down there who certainly dream of thatArsène Wenger
Not only that, they also boast one of the country’s most in-form strikers in Charlie Austin, fresh from scoring his ninth, 10th and 11th goals of the season against the Baggies.
It has been a remarkable rise for the 25-year-old, who was playing for Poole Town in the Wessex League five years ago before rising through the divisions - and he now finds himself touted for a call-up to the England squad.
Wenger is an admirer of the forward, and believes he can act as a spur for other talented players plying their trade in the lower end of the pyramid.
“I believe there are more who like him who can [progress through the divisions],” the Arsenal manager said. “It demands some brave scouting, somebody who has a good eye in the lower divisions.
“I’m convinced it’s not only Charlie Austin who can do that - there are some more down there who certainly dream of that because they feel they have the potential to do it. Congratulations firstly to Charlie Austin because it’s not easy, let’s not fool ourselves. Secondly, congratulations to the guy who thought this guy had a chance.”
Martin Skrtel’s last-gasp equaliser at Anfield last Sunday may have dampened the mood in the Arsenal camp temporarily, but it should not detract from what has been an encouraging run of results.
After successive 4-1 victories, achieved with two of the better performances this season, a point at Liverpool is certainly a decent return when you consider that the Gunners never truly hit the heights. Sure, the manner of the equaliser raised some questions, but when the schedule is this packed it pays to move on as quickly as possible - and that starts on Friday.
I’ve been here long enough to say that the consistency our fans have shown since we’ve been at the Emirates has been fantasticArsène Wenger
The Gunners have only lost once on Boxing Day in 17 seasons and, in their final home game of 2014, Wenger is determined to go out with a bang - although he accepts his side are in for a stern examination from QPR.
“They had a problem starting the season and recently, in the last two months, they’ve found a good efficiency especially at home,” he said of the visitors. “They look to have a good spirit, to have a striker in Austin who is very efficient and overall, if you look at the positions, they have good players.
“But at home we have been quite consistent this year. In the last 24 games, I think we’ve lost one. What we missed maybe is a few wins. We’ve had a few draws [and that is] too many, especially this season.
“The support at home has been fantastic, and I’ve been here long enough to say that the consistency our fans have shown since we’ve been at the Emirates has been fantastic and we are very grateful for that. I wish them all a very happy Christmas and a very happy New Year.”
Signing off with three points would be the perfect belated Christmas gift.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source