by Steven GRIFFITHS
LONDON: – Arsene Wenger admits Arsenal must deal with the spectre of their defensive “ghosts” if they are to get their spluttering season back on track.
Wenger’s side are desperate for a morale-boosting victory as they open their defence of the FA Cup in a repeat of last season’s final against Hull at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
Having started 2015 in dispiriting style with an error-strewn 2-0 defeat at Southampton, which left them languishing in sixth place in the Premier League, Gunners boss Wenger knows Arsenal have some psychological issues to overcome before they can hope for a more positive second half of the season.
Plagued by defensive frailties for several years, Arsenal were once again architects of their own downfall at St Mary’s when a pair of costly blunders from goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny were compounded by poor play from centre-backs Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker.
“I cannot fault the attitude of the team, but we were again haunted by the ghost of what we have seen since the start of the season,” Wenger said.
“This is not the first time it has happened. We did not defend well enough in the final third, and we paid a heavy price. It is a self-inflicted defeat.”
– Increasingly frustrated –
The dramatic 3-2 victory over Hull at Wembley in May, when the Gunners recovered from two goals down to lift the FA Cup and end their nine-year trophy drought, was supposed to herald the start of a new successful era for Wenger’s side.
But they remain troubled by the same inconsistences that have vexed Wenger for so long.
Arsenal fans are growing increasingly frustrated by their team’s problems, with one man arrested after invading the St Mary’s pitch to berate Wenger on Thursday.
And Mertesacker accepts there will be some soul searching as the Gunners look to rediscover the form which had seen them head to Southampton on the back of just one defeat out of nine games in all competitions.
“The last two matches we were in good spirits and those games were close together (over Christmas) and we fought really hard for the two wins, but at Southampton, it was slightly different, we didn’t show up with a good performance,” Mertesacker said.
“We have to come back to our main strength and we have to remind ourselves every day that we need to have a big performance.”
Wenger will rotate his squad against Steve Bruce’s team, with Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina set to replace Szczesny.
Danny Welbeck missed the Southampton game because of a thigh problem and the Gunners striker is expected to be sidelined again, while Olivier Giroud serves the last part of his three-match suspension.
England winger Theo Walcott could come back into the side following his return to fitness, along with French midfielder Mathieu Flamini
“I will make a few changes (against Hull), that is for sure,” Wenger added.
Hull would dearly love to avenge the Cup final loss, but Bruce is more concerned with ensuring the injury-hit Tigers don’t get dragged into a fight to avoid relegation.
“The disappointing thing was we’ve lost three or four players through the ridiculous programme over Christmas,” Bruce said.
“The travelling and everything involved with it is total nonsense. We’ve lost three more arguably to fatigue. (Liam) Rosenior has a hamstring, (Andy) Robertson needs an ankle X-ray and Gaston Ramirez hurt his groin.
“As well as that, Abel Hernandez is physically exhausted.”