The embattled manager insists his players are lacking freshness and feels sure they will come good again
Arsenal's December jaunts to Athens have come to feel like a staple of the season. The formula is tried and trusted. Ensure qualification from the Champions League group stage with one game to spare and play it against Olympiakos with a squad of fringe players. Deja vu dominates, down to the detail of Arsène Wenger bolting straight to the same airport hotel for his official pre-match press conference.
This is the third time in four seasons that he has faced Olympiakos at the raucous Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium in what, for Arsenal, is a largely meaningless final rubber and the memories of the first two have come to the fore.
There was the "Tom Cruise" game in 2009, when Wenger started the unheralded left-back with the Hollywood name as a part of the youngest lineup ever to grace the Champions League. Arsenal lost 1-0, although Aaron Ramsey lit up the occasion with a sparkling performance. Last year, there was further opportunity for young players, together with thrills and comedic spills in the 3-1 defeat.
On both occasions, Arsenal had already ensured their passage to the knockout phase as group winners and there was the feeling of liberation, of adventure, of carefree enjoyment. The contrast here was vivid.
Arsenal are not certain to advance as group winners and they will do so only if they beat Olympiakos, who will finish third regardless, and Schalke fail to beat Montpellier. Wenger is determined to finish on top, even if it is doubtful that this will give Arsenal a better chance of a more favourable last-16 draw. He said he was certain that Montpellier would avoid defeat against Schalke, leaving his players to shape their own destiny. "You don't play Barcelona if you finish first in the group," he noted.
Yet it was not the break from the recently established last-day permutations that made for Wenger's edgy and, at times, confrontational mood. The fires of unrest rage in London among Arsenal fans who are hacked off at the collection of a mere 21 points from 15 Premier League matches.
They question their club's direction and some have taken to wondering whether Wenger is the right man to lead them forward. The mechanics of the argument are skewed by the fact that Wenger has no intention of quitting and the chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, who runs the club on a day-to-day basis on behalf of the majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, has no intention of sacking him. It can feel like a non-debate, at least on a practical level.
At times of crisis, Wenger has regularly demonstrated the ability to charm his audiences, to deflect heat and radiate confidence. Yet before the team flight from Luton, there was stubbornness and haughty responses when he met the media. He was uncharacteristically rattled by the stories about the frayed tempers in the dressing room after Saturday's defeat by Swansea, and he showed his contempt for the "superficial analysis" of some pundits.
Once in Athens, he complained that "the people who shout the loudest are sometimes treated like the majority" even though "it's not always reflecting people's deep mind", and the thrust of his sentiment from the day was that nobody understood him, particularly on the issue of player tiredness. He had cited it after the Swansea game and it led to raised eyebrows, with Phil Neville, the Everton captain, wondering on Match of the Day why Arsenal could be more fatigued than other teams.
Wenger bristled with exasperation when he sought to explain that intensive periods could see players become jaded for matches, but a break of "one, two, three days" tends to lead to recovery. To his mind, a post-match comment had been afforded undue prominence and thrown back in his face. One thought: does Wenger not deal with this regularly and rather more cerebrally?
"People in England don't understand very well tiredness," Wenger said. "They think you can only be tired at the end of the season. But it's a lack of freshness that I was talking about. It was not deep fatigue. Sometimes, you have a repetition of games with the Champions League. It can happen. But we do not want to complain. The little bit that we were not fresh [against Swansea] was only a part of the explanation."
Wenger's response has been to rest a host of first-team regulars, among them the summer signings Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, who did not play Champions League football last season and are contending with a shuddering introduction to the treadmill of the English game.
He said that Jack Wilshere "100%" needed a rest, along with others, including Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta. His travelling party featured a clutch of youngsters, with the 20-year-old Jernade Meade expected to make his debut at left-back. The Premier League fixture against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday looms large.
Wenger spoke of how badly he still takes poor results. "Believe me, every defeat is a tough spell for me," he said. And his message was, for the umpteenth time, to keep the faith. "There is a lot of strength in our team," he said. "Patience and keeping our mental strength will turn it around in an easy way. If you look at people's reactions, everything is dramatic. What is important is to play our football."