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'Concerned' Wenger losing faith in misfiring young guns

In the six long years of disappointment, upheaval and debate since Arsenal last won a trophy, one thing has been constant. Publicly at least, Arsene Wenger has never wavered from the belief that his young squad would mature to vindicate his grand vision.

On Saturday, something fundamental seemed to change. Aside from an FA Cup replay against Leyton Orient, it was the sixth consecutive game that Arsenal had failed to win and even Wenger hesitated in his assessment of the players.

"We had no change of pace, no penetration," he said. "Our rhythm of passing was too slow. It was exactly how we do not want to play. I'm really concerned about the level of our performance. We looked predictable."

For the first time, he also appeared to accept that it was now a question of if, rather than when, for this group of players.

After sidestepping a query about whether he had some big decisions to make, Wenger was asked if he had taken the team as far as he could.

"I don't know -- I want to finish the season and then we'll see," he said. "At the moment, we are more concerned to get this team to respond convincingly in the next game."

That Wenger should be glum after a five-week period in which Arsenal have exited the League Cup, the Champions League, the FA Cup and lost ground to Manchester United in the Premier League, was understandable. Yet rarely has he appeared so disheartened.

There was also a slightly bizarre and cryptic reference to "a lot of things going on that I don't want to talk about."

Wenger is clearly unhappy with the fixture schedule but there is also frustration at recent refereeing decisions, injuries to key players and England manager Fabio Capello's decision to make Jack Wilshere start the international matches against both Wales and Ghana.

On Wilshere and the injuries, it is possible to have some sympathy. On the fixtures and referees, Wenger has rather less to complain about.

Yes, it is a quirk of the schedule that Arsenal will play their remaining weekend matches on a Sunday. Including yesterday, they will also kick off after United five times. Yet some managers would regard this as an advantage.

If Wenger really believes that it is better for his players not to play with the pressure of knowing United's result, it hardly reflects positively on their mental state.

The truth, surely, is that Arsenal are still suffering a hangover from their defeat against Birmingham in the League Cup final.

It brought a sense of gathering momentum to a traumatic halt and, given the wait since 2005 for a trophy, self-doubt has entered the minds of players and fans.

On Saturday, even though the match began with the Premier League title still theoretically in Arsenal's hands, the mood inside the Emirates soon oscillated from subdued to angry.

Goalkeeper Manuel Almunia had to contend with sarcastic cheers when he made some routine catches and, after Arsenal failed to capitalise on Steven N'Zonzi's harsh sending-off, the frustration manifested itself with booing on the final whistle.

With Wenger making no attempt to hide his deep displeasure, it was left to Robin van Persie to offer some words of optimism. "We are still really good footballers," he said. "We cannot give up. We still believe. We were just unlucky."

There was also support for Almunia. "Every footballer, every person makes mistakes," said Van Persie. "He gives everything for Arsenal. He isn't to blame."

Some credit is also due to Arsenal's recent opponents. On Saturday, Blackburn became the latest team to demonstrate that Arsenal can be stifled by effective midfield pressing, with Phil Jones particularly effective in restricting the service to the forwards.

The collective desire was perhaps best illustrated by a heated 90th-minute exchange between defenders Michel Salgado and Chris Samba after Nicklas Bendtner had been allowed a free header from an Arsenal corner.

"That's their desire -- it shows they want to fight for each other; they will demand from themselves and their team-mates," said Blackburn manager Steve Kean. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent