It became clear when the starting squad was announced before the North London derby that Wenger felt more confident about drawing one and winning one (at Villareal on the 25th and potentially versus Barca in the final of this year’s Champions League), than winning 4 and Spurs losing one. Some say it was arrogant (but isn’t that how everyone feels about Arsene Wenger?), others applaud the tactical nature of it, but there is no argument that the fate of Arsenal’s eligibility for the CL next year lies in their own hands.
I tend to agree with Wenger, that it is more difficult for the Gunners to win all of their remaining games (at Sunderland, at Man City, and home to Wigan), especially since Spurs’ form seems constant, and the likelihood of them choking in the end diminishes with each game played. Couple that with the fact that Arsenal had played 53 matches to Tottenham’s 39 since the beginning of the season, I would bank more on the possibility of winning it all in Europe over finishing the remainder of the Premiership with wins in each match, especially since Arsenal’s form in the domestic league does very little to instill confidence.
On the other hand I must argue that not starting Henry and Fabregas was an error on Wenger’s part, simply because the impact on the crowd and on Arsenal’s opponent factor largely on their approach to matches. Henry’s presence on the pitch is the on/off switch for the Highbury crowd, along with the rest of the Arsenal squad.
How many times have we seen Arsenal’s collective shoulders slump when they go down a goal early in the match? And how many times have we seen Arsenal play its best football when they score early and quickly? This is Arsenal’s game, to score quickly (usually on the counterattack) and early in the game, and then to hold the ball with their crisp passing and fluid ball movement. Why take the risk of going down a goal or two and then trying to claw back to level terms on the pitch when it hasn’t been done all year? Despite obvious similarities to Liverpool of last year in their situation, Arsenal are not even close to the team that fought their way back in last year’s CL final against AC Milan.
As disappointed as I was to watch this derby, I felt lifted by Henry’s equalizer late in the game. A pretty pass from Adebayor and two touches later, Arsenal were level. Imagine what the score would’ve been had TH14 been in for ninety instead of twenty-minutes. Of course, there were plenty of opportunities to win this match throughout the whole game, especially the eight or so minutes that Spurs played a man down after Davids’ second yellow card. If anything, this game stressed the difference between Europe and the Premiership, and Wenger’s choices shed light on the confidence he has in his club to perform on the domestic stage, which makes this Tuesday’s return leg with Villareal (Arsenal 1-0 on agg.) a crucial first step in validating their season to date.