Key attacker and defender return for trip to Anfield and Arsne Wenger knows how much depends on the duos form, fitness and desire in the months ahead
It has felt like an age since he has been sighted in an Arsenal shirt, feeding off the emotions of a competitive match and, after the summer he has had, it may come as a release to feature against Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday. Laurent Koscielny, the defensive lynchpin, has certainly been missed.
The focus for the travelling support will be Alexis Snchez, the unsettled forward, who continues to exist in the eye of a storm and is primed following extended leave, a bout of man flu and an abdominal strain to get his first action in Arsenal colours since May. More on him later.
But the parallel comeback story involves Koscielny and, in the context of Arsenals season-opening defensive performance in the 4-3 home win over Leicester City and the shoddiness that precipitated the 1-0 defeat at Stoke City, it is no less significant; at least, in technical terms.
When Koscielny stretched into a 14th-minute challenge on Evertons Enner Valencia on the final day of last seasons Premier League, he thought he would get the ball. He did not and the consequences have been brutal. The red card brought a three-match ban that ruled him out of Arsenals FA Cup triumph over Chelsea.
But it would cast long shadows over his pre-season and torpedo his start to the new campaign. Knowing Koscielny would be missing against Leicester and Stoke, Arsne Wenger decided to omit him from the Community Shield penalty shootout win over Chelsea, reasoning it was more urgent to get other defenders up to speed. The manager had left him out of three of the clubs other six pre-season friendlies.
Its been very hard for Laurent because I didnt even consider him for friendly games, because I had to play some defenders, Wenger said. What hurt him a lot was to miss the Cup final.
He had a reaction against Everton that was unlucky. Hes a very quiet guy and sometimes he can get rushed. He always thinks he has the speed to win the tackle and, in this case, he didnt. I think we lost the game at Stoke because, defensively, we gave a cheap goal away. Its good to have him back.
There was hysteria in some quarters after the Stoke result but Wenger has been keen to point out it was only Arsenals second defeat in 13 matches, including the Community Shield. They have won the other 11. With Koscielny restored at Anfield, Wenger hopes to benefit from his pace and organisational prowess while he will carry an additional threat on attacking set pieces.
Koscielny faces a test of his mentality after such a frustrating period and so, too, does Snchez, albeit for different reasons. His focus, understandably, has been questioned, given his refusal to extend his contract at Arsenal which has less than one year to run and his desire to leave, with Manchester City his destination of choice.
The Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho submitted a transfer request in an attempt to force a transfer to Barcelona whereas Snchez has not gone down that route. Yet he has been after the same thing. No one at Arsenal is under any illusions about what Snchez wants and even Wenger has not attempted to sell the clubs decision to hold him to the final year of his deal as anything to do with the players wishes.
The best slant Wenger could offer before the Liverpool game was to agree Snchez had the opportunity to leave fans with some positive memories from his final year. What is good is that our mutual interest is he does well for us, Wenger said. On top of that, I deeply feel he loves to be here, he loves the club. He arrives at the age of 28 and he looks at the quality of his contract but I think he deeply loves to be here.
In the corresponding fixture at Anfield in March, Wenger took the decision to drop Snchez to the substitutes bench in the wake of his involvement in a training ground bust-up when, coincidentally, he clashed with Koscielny. Wenger insisted it had been a tactical move; that he wanted to play a more direct game up to Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck in order to get past the Liverpool pressing game. He was fooling no one. Snchez came on at half-time and laid on Welbecks goal for 2-1 but Arsenal would lose 3-1.
How Wenger would love to see him have a similar impact this time, whether he starts him or uses him off the bench. When Alexis is in the squad, he can score a goal for you and that is always good for morale, Wenger said.
What has sustained Wenger in terms of the Snchez situation and the clubs stance on it is the Chileans innate fighting spirit. Whenever he steps on to a field, he wants to play; he wants to win. Everything else is forgotten. In this summer of the sulky player, Wenger feels Snchez is somehow different.
It is difficult for me to know about the individual cases [at other clubs] but, sometimes, players have been promised things that have not been kept to, Wenger said. I can only tell you what happens here, and Alexis works hard and is focused to play. In a professional job, I always think you have to make sure with your commitment that the guy who pays you gets what he is paying you for. Alexis is in that mode and I think he will be until the last day he is here. He will give his best.
Inevitably, Wenger veered on to the subject of financial imperatives. The sporting decision to retain Snchez, he said, had been easy but it also involved a financial sacrifice for the club in terms of the potential for lost transfer fees. With Mesut zil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also out of contract next summer and standing to leave as free agents, it was put to Wenger the club could pass up north of 100m in fees.
Its still not a Mbapp, no? Wenger replied, with a nod towards Monacos Kylian Mbapp who, he said, had been mentioned in the 180m bracket. But I agree that its a financial sacrifice for the club. You have to calculate what you can afford and what you cant afford. So, could Arsenal afford to take such hits? Er, Ill let you know later, Wenger said.
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