Wenger Should Follow Van Gaal's Approach

After an impressive 3-1 win against rivals Chelsea to start the tough English Premier League Christmas schedule, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger made eight changes in the starting lineup for the visit to the DW Stadium and the Gunners only managed a frustrating 2-2 draw against relegation-threatened Wigan. Wenger was criticized for opting to rest his players as Arsenal wasted plenty of scoring opportunities that should have won the game before the Latics' late equalizer.

The Frenchman continued with his squad rotation policy in Saturday's third-round FA Cup tie against Championship side Leeds United, and Arsenal needed an injury-time penalty from substitute Cesc Fabregas to manage a disappointing 1-1 draw at the Emirates. Similar to the match against Wigan, the Gunners failed to convert numerous chances into goals.

Wenger said before the game that he would rotate the squad because he wanted to rest players like Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie, and ended up making nine changes from the team that started against Manchester City three days earlier. The Arsenal manager was not criticized for his team selection against Leeds because, unlike the Premier League, winning the FA Cup is a bonus and not a priority.

Although the draws against Wigan and Leeds cannot be solely blamed on squad rotation, they did provide evidence that Arsenal's squad is not deep nor experienced enough for radical changes to the starting lineup against premiership opposition. Therefore, Wenger should learn from Bayern Munich manager Louis van Gaal who, due to a lack of adequate replacements, played most of his starters in every game they were eligible in the 2009-10 German Bundesliga and the UEFA Champions League. Bayern Munich's situation last season was similar to Arsenal's this season as the team was still competing in Europe and the German Cup while chasing the Bundesliga title.

Manager van Gaal took a risk with his team selection (starting Philipp Lahm in 52 of 53 games last season for example), but it paid dividends as Bayern won a domestic double before losing to Italian side Inter Milan in the Champions League Final (Bayern played 53 matches last season, but it should be noted that they benefited from having a winter break).

Wenger will argue that it is important to rest players in matches against (on paper) weaker opponents so that the best players will stay fresh and healthy until the end of the season, and allow the team to be competitive in all competitions. It also gives bench players a chance to stay in match form in case a starter gets injured at some point. "I had to change because we play again on Saturday and again next Wednesday and then again next Saturday and we cannot always play with the same team. I don't think it [team selection] was a problem at all," the Frenchman told The BBC after the Wigan match.

It is not a problem if Arsenal's missions for this season are to continue to develop players while qualifying for the Champions League. But, it is a big problem if the Gunners actually want to win their first Premier League title since the 2003-04 season. The worst thing that could happen if Wenger stays with the same team in every game is that player injuries and fatigue weaken Arsenal's title aspirations. But, the league title will be lost anyway if the Frenchman does not change his team selection strategy because Arsenal lacks the necessary depth and experience on the bench that is required by a squad rotation policy.

For a team like Arsenal that wishes to win titles with homegrown players and fiscally clever investments, a season like this will seldom occur. Despite having lost five games in the league already and trailing leaders Manchester United by four points with a game more played, the Gunners are still in the title race because their rivals have struggled as well. United remain undefeated in the league but, looking beyond that impressive statistic, Sir Alex Ferguson's team has not been as dominant this year as in the previous three seasons while Chelsea is aging and is going through a squad transformation year.

Wenger needs to identify his ideal starting 11, take a risk and only alter it if forced to by injuries or suspensions. There is no assurance that this strategy will lead Arsenal past United for that elusive Premier League title, but it is better than the alternative, which guarantees dropped points.

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