Wenger out of excuses in trophy quest
Mental steel shown in defeat of Barca puts Arsenal in line to end six-year wait for a title, writes Paul Hayward
Arsene Wenger's moniker set out his route in life: Arsenal Wenger, born to manage the Gunners. But what a twisting path it has been since he last he won a trophy -- the 2005 FA Cup, which was so long ago it happened in Wales.
How to measure a side who are 4-0 up against Newcastle and draw 4-4, then trail Barcelona 11 days later but win? No modern team have shown up the dangers of sweeping judgments quite like Wenger's men. On the trains back from Newcastle two weeks ago the talk was all of mental fragility, of a lack of leadership. Arsenal, the consensus ran, were amnesiacs in the art of winning.
The last Highbury and Islington starting XI to hold silver was: Lehmann, Lauren, Toure, Senderos, Cole, Fabregas, Vieira, Silva, Pires, Bergkamp, Reyes. Van Persie, Edu and Ljungberg also played a role, as subs. The heirs to the 2003-04 Invincibles beat Manchester United 5-4 in a penalty shoot-out at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.
Wenger's team returned across the river Severn to aridity: a near six-year wait for a trophy that surely now has reached its end.
Advancing on four fronts, Arsenal would need to have been lying to us against Barcelona on Wednesday night not to go home with a pot this summer. Today in the FA Cup fifth round Leyton Orient, who were stomped on by West Ham in the race to occupy the Olympic Stadium, endeavour to exploit any weariness from the triumph over Barca. Next Sunday Arsenal face Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final at Wembley Stadium.
In the Premier League the astounding 4-4 draw at St James' Park has not ruined the pursuit of Manchester United. And March 8 brings the resumption of artistic jousting with Barcelona, who were beaten by brilliant counter-attacking and by steeliness of nerve.
A persistent reservation about Wenger's faith in the current generation is his insistence that all they ever needed was time. Not winning prizes for half a dozen years hardly seems conducive to the cultivation of a winning mentality, now does it? There was always a point at which Arsenal would be too far away from 2005 for us to believe they could return to metallurgical success.
With each barren year, surely, there would be an extra set of excuses for not winning, which the players could hide behind. As long as they were part of something pretty the actual business of securing trophies could be left to vulgarians or those who failed to understand beauty.
The development of the Arsenal skill-set is indisputable. Johan Djourou is a better centre-half than he was 12 months ago. Samir Nasri has scored 14 times this term and is no longer a firefly. Theo Walcott's productive spells last longer before muddled thinking sets in. Jack Wilshere is a revelation. Wojciech Szczesny may yet be the answer in goal. Laurent Koscielny improves. Of the outfield players, only Tomas Rosicky, Denilson and Andrey Arshavin have stagnated or regressed.
But psychological strength is so much harder to gauge. At Newcastle no Arsenal player stepped up to quell the mounting crisis of goals going in at the wrong end. Against Barcelona the whole side held their resolve in the face of an onslaught and found a way to win. Here Wenger must take credit. At half-time he praised their counter-attacking and encouraged them to believe this was not 2010 all over again.
Cesc Fabregas called it "the best game I've ever experienced on the pitch, in terms of quality and in terms of intensity. They had the ball and they went for it. We had the ball and we went for it." Eleven months ago Arsenal endured a superior Barcelona performance to draw 2-2. This time they asserted their own identity much more forcibly and won. It was progress by any measure.
Last season in the league Wenger's soft-shoe shufflers lost home and away to Manchester United and Chelsea, which seemed to indicate terminal frailty against mentally and physically stronger opposition.
The portents this year are not much better: three points from nine against those two goliaths (a 3-1 home win over Chelsea), with a 3-2 home defeat by Spurs raising further doubt, though Manchester City were beaten 3-0 away.
On current projections the home game against United on April 30 and the trip to White Hart Lane (yet to be rearranged) will determine their seven-year quest to regain the English championship.
Each Arsenal follower has a personal deadline for success. For many six years is already too long. Others count their blessings from watching so much sumptuous football and say they can keep waiting. A few even accept fruitlessness as an acceptable price for good housekeeping. But now Wenger's men have given themselves a problem.
By escaping the victim role against Barcelona they have shown themselves to be eminently capable of ending the vigil. So now they must, without ifs or buts.
Leyton Orient v Arsenal,
Sunday Indo Sport