There is a stubbornness about Arsene Wenger. It is one of his greatest qualities, enabling him to stay true to his principles even when all appears to be falling apart around him, but it may have become his greatest weakness. He acknowledged that the 5-0 FA Cup victory over Lincoln City had been essential for restoring morale but remained adamant that the 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich had not been an embarrassment.
“We were a bit nervous,” Wenger said. “Confidence always drops when you don’t have results. The team was unjustly criticised for the game against Bayern, but we had to get a bit of perspective. I’ve watched this game three times now. We were killed by the referee. We played an excellent game.”
The response to that claim was sceptical but Wenger was persistent. “I would like to watch the game again with you,” he said, “and you would see that the players didn’t let me down. They put in an outstanding performance. I think we got two different five-goal [defeats]. The first one against Bayern I accept we collapsed but when you are down to 10 men against a team of that quality and concede a penalty and have four goals to score it’s not a game anymore.”
That seemed a non-intuitive interpretation of events, but Wenger did at least admit there was a chance of confidence disintegrating after a run of five defeats in seven games. “Of course I didn’t want to gamble today,” he said. “I wanted to win the game and I felt as well that the team had performed well against Bayer. I wanted to give them a chance to get their confidence back, that’s why I retained 90 per cent of players from the starting line-up. It’s always dangerous because confidence can drop quickly.”
Maintaining confidence after letting in five against a superior side is now the task facing the Lincoln manager Danny Cowley, although he at least was able to admit that his side had been comprehensively outplayed after half-time – as is natural given they were playing a team four divisions above them. “It was like he had 15 players on the pitch in the second half,” he said. “And that big clock definitely stopped at some point – that was a hell of a long 45 minutes.
“I think we have to take a lot from our first-half performance,” he went on. “I thought we restricted Arsenal to limited chances and we had a good one of our own.” That was the opportunity Nathan Arnold created for himself cutting in of the right flank only to be denied by a fine save from Petr Cech. “That goes in in the National League,” the garrulous Cowley said.
Arsenal 5 Lincoln 0 player ratings
“We knew we couldn’t press them all game,” he explained, “but we did well to press them from restarts but even when you do that Cech just clips that one out to the left full-back and they get out.”
Getting out was part of Lincoln’s problem as their two centre-forwards, Matt Rhead and Jack Muldoon, dropped too deep as they sought to regain possession. “It was like a boxer being on the ropes,” Cowley said. “You get your Dukes up but sooner or later you’re going to get hit.”
The FA Cup experience has been wearying – “I’ll be glad to be fish and chip paper,” Cowley said – but his pride in what he had achieved in making his side the first from outside the league to reach the Cup quarter-final in 103 years was obvious. “We have to be inspired and learn from this journey,” he said. “People criticise Arsene Wenger but anyone who really knows football, you see the way they move, their understanding of each other’s space, tactically how intelligent they are and you know he’s a very good coach. It was a football education.”
Given one is 67 and has won three league titles and the other is 38 and has never managed in the league, perhaps the comparison is unfair, but it was impossible not to see the contrast between his attitude and Wenger’s. “It’s an impossible job to keep everybody quiet,” Wenger said. “Ideally I would love to but practically it’s very difficult.”
And that, perhaps, is the price of stubbornness.