independent

Friday 25 April 2014

Wenger vows to battle on as fans gunning for board

Arsenal 0 Swansea City 2

A PROTEST march outside the stadium, unprecedented unrest in the stands and, in the aftermath of this limp defeat, some heated exchanges inside the home dressing-room.

Arsene Wenger has endured few more difficult moments during his 923-game reign as Arsenal manager but, amid the club's worst start to a league season for 18 years, he was still bullish when he finally emerged to fulfil his media duties almost an hour after the match. Asked about his future, Wenger not only outlined his intention to stay until at least 2014 but also said that he had never been more confident about his ability to take the club forward.

"If you ask me always about my future, I can only give you one answer," he said. "I always respected my contracts and that is it."

Wenger's deal expires at the end of the 2013-14 season and he retains the full support of the club's board. Stan Kroenke, the majority owner, and Ivan Gazidis, the chief executive, still envisage the club's most successful manager leading them in the long-term.

They also believe that a combination of new sponsorship deals and UEFA's financial fair-play rules does genuinely leave Arsenal positioned for a new era of sustained trophy-winning success. The short-term problems, however, are mounting, as is the discontent being directed at Wenger (pictured) and the club's board, including chairman Peter Hill-Wood, who is recovering in hospital after suffering a heart-attack on Friday.

Before the match, there was an organised protest march which called for change in the club's boardroom (rather than the dugout), repeatedly chanting 'We want our Arsenal back'.

Arsenal might argue that they have been placed in a succession of impossible positions but the pattern of selling their best players has clearly eroded the team to the extent that participation in the Champions League, for what would be a 17th straight year, is already under serious threat. There is also doubt surrounding the futures of Theo Walcott and Bacary Sagna. Aaron Ramsey, perhaps due to the double leg fracture he suffered in 2010, continues to struggle for form. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has, if anything, gone slightly backwards since last year. Jack Wilshere is still short of match fitness, while the progress of Kieran Gibbs is clearly being restricted by persistent injuries.

The squad is being weighed down by players who have flattered to deceive, with Andrei Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh, Andre Santos and Sebastian Squillaci all collecting a wage out of kilter with their performances.

The January window will be a pivotal month and, with at least £40m to spend, Kevin Strootman, a holding midfielder for Holland and PSV Eindhoven, was scouted on Saturday. Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha and Schalke's Klaas-Jan Huntelaar are also being regularly watched. A new forward is understood to be the priority.

Wenger pointed to fatigue as an explanation for Saturday's performance, an admission that speaks volumes for his current reliance on a core of players. It is no coincidence, then, that Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski, Walcott and Wilshere are not all expected to travel to Athens for tomorrow's Champions League tie against Olympiakos.

Fear

Wenger also alluded to a lack of self-belief at the Emirates and warned that the players must not develop a fear factor of playing in front of their own fans.

"At home we have struggled with confidence," he said. "You look at the moment at this uncertainty amongst the fans. Has it an influence on our performance? I don't know. I have to focus on the job to see how we can sort our problems out."

Arteta, Arsenal's vice-captain, said the supporters were entitled to so vocally voice their frustrations.

"We can't keep asking them to be behind us if afterwards we don't give them back what they deserve," he said.

Amid the inquest, huge credit is due to Swansea. Although they had to wait until the 88th and 90th minutes for Michu's two goals, they had only previously been restricted by some excellent saves from Wojciech Szczesny. Swansea are now three points off the top four and 10 points clear of the relegation zone but Michael Laudrup remains acutely aware of his priorities.

"We need to reach 40 points first – it's the magic number," he said. "The fans are allowed to dream, that is part of what it is to be a fan. The rest of us are working daily to be better." (Daily Telegraph, London)

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