Arsene Wenger has had a mixed first week in 2015 and questions are still being left unanswered over the direction his Arsenal side is going for the rest of this season, though the two matches may yet have helped him to make at least one final choice.
Travelling to Southampton on New Year’s Day would have been tough with a full-strength squad, so the injuries keeping Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby, Mathieu Flamini and Mesut Ozil on the sidelines were particularly unwelcome.
Despite this, the Gunners were not quite so dismal as many suggested and though they gave up a few chances they would have got away with it were it not for that pesky Pole.
Wojciech Szczesny’s ill-advised charge off his line and subsequent slow motion retreat just after the half hour mark allowed Sadio Mane to lob him.
The second and final goal of the game was infinitely more calamitous; shoddy Arsenal defending allowed Steven Davis in behind but his low cross went straight to Mathieu Debuchy to be dealt with.
That’s what one would think anyway, but Szczesny decided he needed to get involved and inexplicably flicked a foot at it, which only sent it straight to Dusan Tadic and the Serb obliged by poking home.
It was the goal that killed the game and is looking like it could possibly be the goal that kills the 24-year-old’s playing prospects – for the short-term at least. Well, that and the reports today that claim he is set for a hefty fine from the club after being caught smoking in the showers after the game.
Jack Wilshere has already been publicly scalded by Arsene Wenger for being snapped smoking on a couple of occasions and one would think most players at the club would avoid it, let alone getting nabbed in the showers after a dismal performance that allowed local rivals Tottenham Hotspur leapfrog them in the Premier League table.
It got worse for Szczesny a few days later when summer signing David Ospina was installed in goal for the FA Cup tie with Hull City and acquitted himself well. Having said that, the much-changed Tigers weren’t exactly the sternest opposition and couldn’t exploit a subdued display from the home side.
There was one moment in the first half, however, when perhaps Ospina displayed the kind of proficiency required of a number one in the Premier League. Hull had a free-kick in a dangerous area and sent a high ball into the area for the regiment of ginormous defenders they had on the pitch.
Colombia’s number one was not fazed and attacked the ball, punching it away to safety for a throw in. Just the ticket in a situation that Wenger’s teams often find themselves making mistakes giving away silly goals – the first ten minutes of the FA Cup final against the same opponents are testament to that.
His solid display to help set up a fourth round tie with Brighton is the perfect excuse for Wenger to give his usual number one a boot up the backside. Ospina is an experienced international goalkeeper and is more than capable of taking up the number one spot for a period of time.
Szczesny’s mind implosion against Southampton and, reported, cigarette episode are signs that he may be letting things slip upstairs again. This happened in 2013 and Wenger acted by dropping him for Lukasz Fabianski, to which Szczesny responded well and it looked as though he had turned a corner.
He has not exactly been a huge problem this season, Wenger has far bigger problems to mull over, but ill-discipline and questionable decision-making are the sort of thing that have so many commentators and fans of the Emirates Stadium club unconvinced about the player that came through the youth ranks.
Genuine competition between the posts will only benefit Wenger and Arsenal, while Szczesny will enhance his reputation further if he can react in a similar way to his last being dropped. Stoke City’s visit to the Emirates on Sunday feels like as crucial a match as the Gunners have had so far this season.
The first half in the corresponding fixture at the Britannia Stadium was a shambles of the highest degree and saw them go in at half time three goals down. Defeat to the Saints was another low point and a reaction will be needed.
If only to keep sight of the top four teams, especially Spurs, but, most importantly, for morale around the club. Players like Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Mathieu Flamini and Mesut Özil returning will provide a boost, but a run of wins will mean even more if the remainder of the season is likely to have any success in it.
Throwing Ospina in against Stoke will do two very intriguing things: Szczesny will get another test of his character, while Ospina will have the perfect opportunity to prove he can be a legitimate challenger to his teammate. It’s time Wenger wielded the axe.