Wenger expects high stakes to ignite clash with faltering City
Arsenal manager says both teams need to bounce back Guardiola’s Barcelona were ‘the best team I ever played’
television impresarios might be tempted to present this afternoon’s meeting not as Super Sunday, but as the final of the Great British Flake-off.
There is one significant change to that 2015 examination, however: City have in their dugout Pep Guardiola, a manager who, over the past few weeks, has been given a brutal introduction to the Premier League’s bear traps. His principal goalscorer losing his head, a gaping hole where his centre-backs should be, a goalkeeper providing all the sense of security of a cardboard crash barrier; the doubts about the manager’s true effectiveness now he is engaged for the first time in a properly competitive league are gathering.
“The questions always come after you’ve had a defeat,” suggested Wenger. Certainly he was not inclined to join in the mockery of Guardiola’s suggestion last weekend that he was unaware of the meaning of the word ‘tackle’. Wenger had not noticed, he said, that any of the Spaniard’s teams were deficient in the ability to win back the ball. “They do not tackle less than Arsenal or anyone else when you look at the numbers.”
Wenger preferred to point out that Guardiola was responsible for coordinating the best team he had faced in his career.
“With Arsenal we faced maybe Barcelona at its peak – at the time when Xavi was still young enough, Iniesta was coming up, Alves was still young. They were the best team I have played. They were all coming up with a huge desire. They had Eto’o and Henry and Ibrahimovic and Messi. Imagine what that was.”
One name he did not mention in his roll call of honour was Alexis Sánchez, the forward he managed to prise from Guardiola’s grasp. Yet this is the player he believed had the capacity to make the difference against City. As the negotiations stall about the Chilean’s future, Wenger knows his value.
“He is a leader in his way on the football pitch, because he is not scared of anybody,” he said. “That’s a kind of leadership. Sánchez surprises you a little bit because of his size – you do not expect such a dynamic, strong winning attitude.”
He is the player who Wenger hopes will make his side party like it’s 2015 again. Not least because, unlike City’s talisman Sergio Agüero, he will actually be available for selection.
Amid all the nostalgia for that victory, though, it is worth pointing out one thing: that win at City was not enough to deliver Arsenal the title. That went to Chelsea. History, it appears, can repeat itself in more ways than one.