By Richard Clarke
Arsène Wenger has had a pretty average week – but he still feels lucky.
Last Saturday, Arsenal needed a last-minute penalty to scrape a draw with Leeds in the FA Cup, four days later they lost 1-0 at Ipswich in the first leg of the Carling Cup Semi-Final.
Both were below-par performances but neither has inflicted irreparable damage – and, mostly importantly, Wenger knows he’ll have the time to turnaround the situation.
The Frenchman has always been a stalwart for stability, something that Avram Grant, his opposite number on Saturday night, is struggling to obtain at Upton Park.
West Ham are rock bottom of the Premier League right now and have barely been higher all season. It has led to very public pressure of Grant’s position – a discomfort Wenger has never really faced at Arsenal.
“I am very lucky and I know my luck,” he admitted on Friday.
“This is a job where you give yourself completely to the next game. You have to behave like you stay your whole life at the club, knowing it can end at any minute.
“But, at the same time, after I identified the clubs where I can work, I did not walk away when I had the possibility. I was always loyal to the club where I was.
“In the case of Grant I don’t think he wants to walk away. But I stayed at the club when I found a condition where I could work in the way I want.”
These two managers could be leading out their teams in the Carling Cup Final late next month. West Ham will take a tight 2-1 advantage to Birmingham for the second leg. Despite a poor performance in the first game, Arsenal are still expected to overturn that 1-0 lead Ipswich secured at Portman Road.
“I said we were naïve and had no spark,” said Wenger. “I don’t think I have anything to change on that statement. The players are conscious of that, it was a night off as you say. We are of course sorry and we want to put things right in the second leg. We had a completely average performance.
“But we will not play like that at West Ham. We want to win there.”
On the eve of the game, Wenger confirmed that Lukasz Fabianski would miss out because of a shoulder injury. Wojciech Szczesny will play his third successive game in goal and James Shea, 19, would be on the bench.
However Wenger still rates the older Pole as his first choice.
“Szczesny has presence, has size and has quality,” he said. “We are in a world of competition but, for me, at the moment it’s clear Fabianski is No 1”.
Denilson (thigh) is also out but Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie are back after missing out with minor kicks in midweek.
West Ham have lost four of their last six games and, in their previous Premier League match, suffered their worst defeat in four years when they went down 5-0 at Newcastle.
But then that Ipswich defeat was only Arsenal’s second loss to lower League opposition in the Wenger era. The Suffolk side was aptly agricultural in their approach at times but the manager accepts the tactic troubled his team.
“I have seen many games where [long balls] are the Achilles heel of any team,” said Wenger. “We have to deal with that now and we wanted to deal with that at Ipswich.
“It was the only problem we faced and they did that in a consistent way – we had 60-70 per cent of the ball and when you have that you want to create more than we did.
“They gave us this problem, it is normal and we have to deal with that but, on the night, I personally believe that with the ball we did not create enough.
“We respect the way that Ipswich played but now we want to play well at West Ham on Saturday. We are on a good run in the Premier League and we want to continue that. We have produced fantastic games, quality-wise, during the Christmas period. I think we switched off a bit mentally during the Cup games, I am confident we will switch on against West Ham.”
This is turning in a sticky spell for Arsenal. Since beating Chelsea so comprehensively on December 27, they have played five times and won just once.
Perhaps a mental fatigue is the main factor. The manager has claimed his injury list is about as clear as it has ever been at this stage of a season and that has the extra benefit of allowing rotation. Legs are relatively fresh.
Arsenal have lost nothing in 2011 but, at the same, a little dip has complicated an already difficult burden.
In the next few days they go to West Ham and Leeds. Only one is a cup game but both will feel like it.
And this time, unlike their two games last week, Arsenal have no real margin for error.
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