Thursday 14 December 2017

James Lawton: Wenger earns right to smile after Gunners' resurrection

Head coach Arsene Wenger smiles during a Arsenal press conference
James Lawton

James Lawton

Redemption in football often takes its own sweet time. Ask Alex Ferguson, who came so close to breaking point at Manchester United before finding unparalleled success.

Ask all those managers who went down with the word 'potential' frozen on their lips. But who better to tell how it really is than Arsene Wenger as he travels to Old Trafford so dramatically restored as a front-rank football man embracing again some of his old glory?

Patronised by his often bitter rival Ferguson, discounted again earlier this week by Wayne Rooney, Wenger returns to a place which in recent years seemed to have elected itself as the semi-official graveyard of his last hopes.

Yet, on Sunday afternoon it is United who have the heavier reasons for trepidation.


As they fight desperately to redefine themselves under David Moyes, and avoid the defeat that would leave them 11 points behind Arsenal, Wenger's biggest danger is suddenly the temptation of premature celebration.

Five points clear at the top of the Premier League, resilient winners at Borussia Dortmund, and with a business plan that makes United's resemble an asset-stripping nightmare, Arsenal certainly might be excused a degree of buoyancy.

Wenger, though, is plainly in the mindset to hold it at that. His body language in Dortmund, especially in the last, taut few minutes, was as eloquent as any that portrayed his despair in eight barren years. He had the countenance of a man fighting to control any expression of the belief that he was maybe winning, more completely than he could have dreamed, the most draining battle of his professional life.

Later his satisfaction ran deeply, and exhilaratingly, but hardly to the point of excess. This was remarkable in a man reviewing the extent of his and his team's demolition of the idea that they were no longer significant factors in either domestic or European football.

This was Arsenal's 14th victory in 15 away games – a renaissance that had seen the defeat of Champions League finalists Bayern Munich and Dortmund.

But if Wenger kept hubris at bay, he was ready enough to quantify the meaning of the latest triumph.

"This strengthens the belief of my team that we can put in another great performance in another massive game on Sunday. We want this kind of performance again," he said. "It was a united, focused performance. We were like metal. I always believed we looked more stable defensively because we have experience in midfield not to lose the ball in stupid positions.

"We showed huge solidarity to get through difficult moments. Maybe it's a better result than in Munich earlier this year because there was more at stake. Both teams had to win."

Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp, while understandably disappointed by his team's profligacy after bouts of searing approach play, could not have provided a more encouraging counter-point to the scepticism of Rooney, who has forecasted a mid-season Arsenal collapse.

Klopp said: "They are young, healthy and good technicians. They won a clever game tonight and could go to the final and win it, as long as they don't play against Bayern Munich."

Bayern can wait, Wenger seems to be saying. Who knows, yet, where the poise and touch of Mesut Ozil and the prodigious development of Aaron Ramsey will have left Arsenal in the knockout phase which may present again the European champions?

The indicators could hardly be more encouraging. Before Ozil was signed, and Ramsey (pictured below) reborn, Arsenal's midfield was in huge debt to young Jack Wilshere.

Now, as Mikel Arteta somewhat crankily grows into his role as holding midfielder, the former boy wonder of England is becoming more an option than the arbiter of success and failure.

When Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie left, the young men of Arsenal's destiny had flown away on golden eagles.

Now Ramsey has learned to score goals and the effect has been immense. Twenty-four hours after United's questionable investment in Marouane Fellaini had brought more doubts – and a red card – in San Sebastian, Ramsey was scoring his 11th goal of the season.

At Old Trafford, Ramsey will get another huge opportunity to prove himself the perfect symbol of Arsenal's resurrection. After his leg was broken in February 2010, the Welshman's survival as a significant player was openly questioned.

"It just shows how difficult it is to have an assessment on any player," said Wenger. "One year ago everyone said he couldn't score. This season he has the confidence and he has an unbelievable engine to get from box to box."

What has always sustained Wenger, even when he was performing his grim mimes on the touchline in the most desperate reaches of recent seasons, and many Arsenal fans were howling for his departure, is his belief in a certain way of football.

The Frenchman could lose, and extremely badly, and still talk of the good things that lay over the next hill. He could also say that he was preserving a rational belief in the way the game should work, that while so many clubs mortgaged their futures, or assumed the pockets and the interest of their owners were guaranteed, Arsenal were paying for their new stadium and all the revenue and security that it would surely bring.

On some occasions Wenger's defence of his position was sturdy and convincing, on others it seemed like the desperate entreaty of a man at his wits end. He was openly mocked at Old Trafford, sending hoots to the rafters when he kicked away a water bottle.

No one is laughing now. Perhaps there is a certain suspension of belief.

Have Arsenal truly smelted iron, or are they riding their luck? Will such as Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny continue to defend so resolutely? Will Ozil remain so committed in his silky authority? Will Ramsey maintain his pursuit of a suddenly dazzling horizon?

The questions are inevitable because eight years is a long time to search not just for a lost chord but some relevance to the most serious action. However, they are questions that have acquired a whole new weight.

They are, after all, no longer concerned solely with the agonies of one troubled football club. They are about the outcome of an entire season, home and abroad.

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