We got encouragement but also need points -- Wenger
Published 19/12/2011 | 05:00
The "feeder club" tried to give Manchester City something nasty to chew on.
Arsenal left Manchester beaten and 12 points adrift in the title race, but no one could accuse them of bending the knee to Mammon.
All week Arsene Wenger's men had endured the taunting. Their training base at London Colney was a nice market garden for Sheikh Mansour's scouts.
Arsenal would cultivate the talent and City would pull it from the ground at the point of perfect ripeness. Robin van Persie would be next. Double his wages and away he goes dressed in sky blue.
Life is a bit more complex than that (hallelujah). Arsenal may have lost Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy to middle-eastern money but they have not lost their soul.
There is no space here to debate the merits of the billionaires Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov whining about City's power to pay astronomical wages to the players of other A-list clubs. To lose these contractual battles is often (but not always) a choice: a vote in favour of careful housekeeping.
After six years without a trophy, the process of keeping Arsenal's stars in north London is clouded by more than money.
It requires the team to believe that the promised ship will come in, despite the silence in the docks. It is about cash, first, as Nasri so amply demonstrated, but faith comes into it as well.
The conviction is back, if this thrilling game is any guide. "It was a game that could have gone both ways -- very intense, with both teams going for it," said Wenger, who was without all four of his full-backs and had to start with Thomas Vermaelen, his best defender, on the right, and the less convincing Johan Djourou on the left.
"We were a bit unlucky that we had to reshuffle too much at the back," Wenger went on. "We had four full-backs out and the first injury we had (Djourou, who went off on 46 minutes) was to a full-back. We cannot buy 17 full-backs. We lacked a little bit in the final third with our final ball, but overall we had a very positive spirit with great quality."
A second-half handball by City's Micah Richards escaped the attention of referee Phil Dowd, whose tough-guy act when booking players is not matched by clear thinking around the most serious transgressions.
"Van Persie is adamant that it was 100pc a penalty," Wenger said, while adding that he, personally, "did not see it". This is not the limp, dispirited Arsenal who lost 8-2 in Manchester's other cauldron. The difference between the two performances is immense. In the first they looked terminally discouraged by the loss of Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. They were on a slide of doom and United sent them south mortified.
Between then and this encounter, Arsenal took 22 points from 24 in the league and earned a Champions League second-round tie against AC Milan while the two Manchester behemoths tumbled into the Europa League.
If there is a fault-line, still, it is depth of match-winning talent.
Andrei Arshavin's calamitous 20-minute cameo reaffirmed his irrelevance in this Arsenal side and Marouane Chamakh is not much more influential.
Wenger talks optimistically of reinforcements -- "with Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby back you'd say we'll have a good second half of the season" -- but Alex Song will now miss the next match and the squad is not blessed with match-changing back-up.
The story here was that Arsenal fielded a back-four of centre-halves against the impishness of Sergio Aguero and David Silva and often came off second best.
But they were relentless in their own marauding -- especially Van Persie and Gervinho, who placed his tachometer under severe strain with a workaholic display.
Aaron Ramsey's love of creativity needs controlling -- specifically his habit of back-heeling anything that moves, when a simple gather-and-pass would be more effective. Top marks to him though for being brave enough to apply for the Fabregas-Nasri roles. Mikel Arteta, meanwhile, was a superb choice, at just the right time. His intelligence and economy of passing is allied with great coolness under pressure.
So Arsenal are stronger, more composed and more defiant than in the season's dark early days. Equally, they remain over-reliant on Van Persie and need Gervinho to master his stage-fright in front of goal. The most impressive aspect of their first league defeat since the Tottenham game on October 2 was the way they strode up the pitch in the last 15 minutes pursuing parity.
No longer in victim mode, Arsenal are learning to use their resentment towards City as motivational fuel. Wenger says the Sheikh's raids have forced him to rethink his whole approach to management, but he has yet to specify quite how.
Will he tie 20-24-year-olds to longer contracts, faster -- and pay them more? Or has he lost interest in raking the sand of youth for jewels in favour of more traditional acquisitions such as Arteta and Per Mertesacker?
It is too soon to know. Arsenal are now a blend of emergency buys and the gilded youth that Wenger always insisted would mature into trophy-winning material. His problem is that the summer's successful supermarket dash showed up the failings of his original methodology.
Which is it to be? We will not know until spring or summer. But at least Wenger has bought himself some time to evaluate the next wave of recruitment. Whichever way he goes, he would be safe in offering Arshavin his cards.
Before he headed south to think some more, Wenger said of this performance: "It's encouraging, but we need encouragement and points, and at the moment we've only got encouragement." (© Daily Telegraph, London)