Arsene Wenger is happy with Arsenal’s hectic fixture schedule and hopes too much time to think in between games could be the downfall of leaders Leicester.
The table-topping Foxes travel to the Emirates Stadium tomorrow five points clear at the Premier League summit — with the Gunners third, below fierce local rivals Tottenham.
With no continental tournaments to worry about and having already been knocked out of the Capital One Cup and the FA Cup, many believe a less congested run-in could see Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester complete a most remarkable title success.
But Wenger, whose side remain in the FA Cup — looking to win it for a third straight year — and have a Champions League last-16 clash with Barcelona on the horizon, believes too much time thinking about upcoming fixtures could be detrimental to a team.
“Yes, time to think can be a disadvantage if you not are thinking in a positive way and the pressure is on,” he said. “It is true that sometimes the less time you have to wait for the next game, the better it is.
“I believe they are still in a position where they think where they have nothing to lose. But once you are top of the league, you can also think about losing what you have.
“That is where the nerves come in a little bit. I do not know how they will respond to that.”
Some Leicester fans are planning to miss the first five minutes of tomorrow’s noon kick-off in north London in protest to the late decision to switch the date of the match for television purposes. Arsenal supporters group REDaction has called on home fans to applaud Leicester’s efforts, but Wenger is keen to keep any protests away from the match itself.
“You want everybody there when the game starts,” the Arsenal boss said when asked if he would be disappointed if fans came in late.
“For me, the game is a joy and everyone has to be part of it. You can protest before and after, but during the game, you want everybody to be there. It [a game of football] is a moment of happiness in your life. Life is not every day fantastic — sometimes it’s boring, sometimes it’s difficult for many people. Football is a moment of happiness in your life, so don’t miss it.”
Leicester lost 5-2 when Arsenal visited the King Power Stadium in September but, if they follow up on recent victories over Liverpool and Manchester City with success in north London, they could be on course to record one of the most surprising feats in the history of the game.
And, with the game being played on Valentine’s Day, Wenger admits there is a hint of romanticism to the Foxes’ surge up the table after being rock bottom on their last visit to Arsenal.
“Of course it is very romantic and I understand the whole country being behind them,” he said.
“That is human. I think as well that it is good for football, and it goes against a little but the usual practice in our game, which is spend, buy big stars. It is important to know that with quality work, quality scouting, and quality management you can have great results.
“I never had the feeling that it was a bottom of the league team as they already had the strength that came out this season because they had two or three players that have given them more quality. They started well so their confidence levels are much higher.”
Wenger revealed he was unhappy with the performance of his defenders at Leicester —and he has a selection headache ahead of tomorrow’s rematch.
Per Mertesacker has been on the bench for Arsenal’s last two outings, with the World Cup winner replaced by Gabriel for the draw at home to Southampton and Sunday’s victory over Bournemouth.
With no goals conceded in either of those games, Wenger must decide whether to recall Mertesacker or continue to partner Gabriel with Laurent Koscielny.
“I told my defence after the game in September ‘I’m not happy with your performance’ because they created goal chances,” he said.
“Do you want to know if Gabriel starts? They have done well. Gabriel has always done well. He adapted slowly to the Premiership but today he has adapted. He’s still a young central defender but he shows big potential.
“He has been here one year, we bought him in January. He still has some issues with his English but he is improving.
“None of the two [Gabriel or Koscielny] is a real commander. I ask a bit more of Petr Cech to lead because they don’t talk too much.
“Koscielny is a silent leader and Gabriel at the moment doesn’t master the language well enough. I don’t think also he’s a natural extrovert central defender.”
Despite Mertesacker’s likely continued absence, Wenger denied claims he had dropped the 31-year-old because he was proving too slow against pacey opponents.
The Germany international was sent off for bringing down Diego Costa in the recent defeat to Chelsea and was then dropped for games against Southampton, who boast the pace of Shane Long, and Bournemouth, with former Gunner Benik Afobe leading the line with speed and agility.
“There are many centre-backs who are not pacey — John Terry is not pacey,” said Wenger.
“You need at least one of the two. It’s as well about reading the game. If I have a full-back on either side who is very quick there is not so much damage done because he can be covered from the right and the left.
“Centre-back is also about anticipation and Per Mertesacker is very strong at that. Let’s not forget he played all the games until now, against City and United, they all have quick strikers.”
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