Tuesday 17 October 2017

Wenger faces foe revelling in new forces

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Reuters
James Lawton

James Lawton

Riot police were required at the Emirates Stadium when Arsenal found themselves in second-class European action for the first time in 19 years. Tomorrow at Stamford Bridge, though, the call might just have to go out to the League Against Cruel Sports.

The brutal truth is that Arsene Wenger looks heavily over-matched in the lair of Chelsea's Antonio Conte. It helped him that Alexis Sanchez set aside his monumental transfer sulk long enough to produce a goal of sublime quality to put down the Europa League challenge of the Bundesliga's Cologne.

But it didn't, you could see on the anguished face of the Arsenal manager, diminish the idea that he has a team in need of some kind of protection.

When Sanchez fired in so beautifully, and the barrelling Sead Kolasinac announced his arrival in the second half with a ferocious goal of his own, the expression of Wenger was more of relief than exhilaration.

It spoke of a man who lives in the present with much trepidation and when he looks into the future sees one stripped of all its old certainties.

How can it be otherwise? Already his season is a torment of insecure possibilities. This is supposed be his last stand, his re-assertion of the touch that brought him one of football's great coaching reputations. But instead of being able to trumpet regained glory, he contemplates the middle distance as though fighting the urge, not always successfully, to gnaw at his nails.

Take away a desperately worked win over Leicester City on the first night of high expectancy, and a formal battering of toothless Bournemouth, and the picture is of a team so disconnected they might be lost and separate souls. Thursday's team will be strengthened by the likes of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey but it is hardly a guarantee of enhanced performance. Arsenal's most biting deficiency is not individual talent but a convincing collective personality.

The defeat at a Liverpool shortly to be eviscerated by Pep Guardiola's Manchester City, had Ozil and Ramsey among the leading culprits in a failure of nerve and resolve so profound it would have brought something close to terminal dismay at most leading clubs.

Reassuring

At Arsenal though there is always tomorrow. It just happens that today this particular prospect is about as reassuring as a walk in a minefield.

Certainly if unpredictable Liverpool, operating between attacking heaven and defensive hell, could make Arsenal look as though they were in the first stages of learning the game, what might the thoroughly re-motivated, and re-organised, Chelsea do?

For Wenger, it has to be a withering thought. He, of leading managers, knows well enough Conte's ability to quickly absorb - and act upon - signs that he may have got things wrong.

Early last season Arsenal beat Chelsea comfortably at the Emirates. Conte did more than react sharply. He came up with an entirely new battle plan. The result was stunning and title-winning.

Now, after his discouraging summer of transfer frustration, losses to, of all people, Arsenal in the FA Cup and Community Shield, and a shocking opening-day defeat to Burnley, we have seen a similar coaching performance.

Again, it has been about the clarity of a coach's vision and his capacity to transmit it. Tottenham, an extremely impressive team once again, were dismantled at Wembley, a promising Everton were broken at Stamford Bridge after drawing at the hugely strengthened City and with three straight Premier League wins Chelsea are plainly whole again despite the departures of Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic and the slow healing of Eden Hazard.

Passion

The reality is that Conte's passion is specific and hard. Costa served him well enough in front of goal but long before the end of the season the coach's trust was withdrawn. It was a statement not only about individual merit and nature but the requirements of an authentic team.

That quality again glows out of the blue shirts and unless Arsenal achieve a startling reinvention of their competitive nature tomorrow afternoon the prospect is grim for all those who hang on to the dogged belief that one day still Wenger will find his lost chord.

Meanwhile, Conte rejoices in new forces within his dressing room. His compatriot, 25-year-old wing-back Davide Zappacosta, was brought in for a relatively modest £25m shortly before the fall of the transfer curtain and is already threatening the place of such a proven operator as Victor Moses. He is doing it with striking, if modestly stated, talent that brought him a spectacular goal in his Champions League debut against the Azerbaijani makeweights Qarabag this week.

Zappacosta, who has played five times for Italy, became the 100th Italian to score in Champions League football and he told the folks back home: "I looked into the penalty box to make a pass but I couldn't do it and so I shot for goal. It was chaos. Beautiful chaos."

For consumption closer to West London, specifically the Stamford Bridge dressing room, Conte had his own point to make. It was that he was interested in more than the higher flights of natural-born talent. He said that Zappacosta had something vital to bring to his new challenge. It was a willingness to learn, to develop, and, most crucially, to become part of an implicit team understanding.

The coach added: "He has played a really good game tonight. Now he has to continue to work to improve. I think he will do it, I believe in his attitude to the game. Davide knows well my style and idea of what is important in football."

Such an assessment might just keep him in the team again Arsenal, along with the impressive German international centre-back Antonio Rudiger, which would be at the expense of club captain Gary Cahill's return from suspension.

Such decisions would be in the style and culture of the coach who claimed three straight Serie A titles with Juventus, revived the Italian national team and won the Premier League at Chelsea at the first time of asking - all in six years.

It is another reason to believe that Arsene Wenger has to do more than battle history tomorrow. He has to turn it back.

Irish Independent

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