Thursday 18 January 2018

Hoping to banish the nightmare

Pain of 8-2 loss to United still haunts Arsene Wenger, writes Henry Winter

It was the most extraordinary scoreline in the history of the Premier League, a storyline so distressing for the vanquished manager that it threatened his sanity. For Arsene Wenger, even the passing of 145 days could not dull the pain of Arsenal's 8-2 loss to Manchester United. "I don't stay sane,'' Wenger reflected yesterday.

Talking after training at London Colney, Arsenal's erudite manager was largely in cogent mood, although still straying into areas of perceived conspiracies against his club. A fastidious planner by nature, Wenger's working life is complicated by players who move on, by referees who make mistakes, by rivals' extravagance and the fickle workings of the fixture calendar. Like a well-mannered commuter aghast at rush-hour mayhem, Wenger craves order in a world of chaos.

The awkward truth for Wenger, one he fails to grasp, is that the bedlam is partly of his own making. His squad is imbalanced. His back four does not appear properly drilled. At Old Trafford on August 28, a mischievous imp called pandemonium spent 90 minutes among the Frenchman's Maginot Line of a defence.

Carl Jenkinson, Johan Djourou, Laurent Koscielny and Armand Traore resembled nervous newcomers to a line-dancing class, straying constantly from their positions as Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Nani and company breezed into space.

Wenger's defenders were given little protection by a midfield of Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin and Tomas Rosicky. Andrey Arshavin rarely tracked back, Theo Walcott did so only occasionally, while Arsenal's serial saviour, Robin van Persie, tried hard to challenge the champions but lacked support of any substance.

As the goals really flew in during the last 20 minutes, Alex Ferguson almost stopped celebrating, seemingly in sympathy for Wenger.

Ferguson's players exuded all of their manager's famous hunger. "He will manage until he dies, and I think he will be 100,'' observed Wenger, who renews rivalry with Ferguson at the Emirates tomorrow.

"My motivation is to beat him. Of course, I will never beat his record. But to win the game on Sunday is my motivation. We are in a job where we need our physical strength and health. That weakens the older you get."

But nobody can imagine Wenger retiring. "Nor can I, but it will happen. I will never retire. I will maybe do a different job, not every day out there with the team. I don't like to get up in the morning and have nothing to do. Maybe I will become a competitor for you!"

Wenger in the press box? An unlikely thought. He feels those who chronicle this mad pursuit are overly critical of his Arsenal. "Robert Pires once dived against Portsmouth (in 2003) and for six months it was a story. Nathan Dyer (of Swansea City) dived on Sunday and nobody said a word. If it doesn't matter when Dyer dives, why does it matter when Pires dives?''

Criticism has been valid of Arsenal. Although beset by injuries (Jack Wilshere was back running yesterday), Arsenal are over-reliant on Van Persie. Wenger's summer purchases have hardly been runaway successes.

"In the press you are now educated to see everything in black.''

So do some Arsenal fans. "You reflect the fans' fear, but you create it as well,'' replied Wenger.

Well, the table cannot lie. Nor can an 8-2 scoreline. "The next morning, I always rewatch the game,'' continued Wenger. "This one was a very painful one, but you have to face the reality. We were weak on the day. People forget that on the day we conceded four goals in the last 20 minutes with 10 men and we played for our lives three days before at Udinese in 33 degrees heat. The game of the week was not United, it was Udinese to qualify for the Champions League.

"When young managers ask, 'what kind of advice would you give me?', it is always to survive big disappointments.

"You have to live with the ups and the downs. It was three points lost in a humiliating way but we can come back. There is no better opportunity than (playing) United to show that. You do not play a game for revenge, you play a game because you want to win."

Arsenal's chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, observed that "we have been planning for not qualifying every year, so it is not a disaster", meaning from a budgeting perspective.

Wenger shook his head. "For me, it would be (a disaster) because I want to play with the best. We want to play in the Champions League. If we do not have the players back we will struggle. We are in a worse situation than anyone on the injury front."

This is where Wenger so frustrates supporters. Arsenal are crying out for reinforcements at full-back, in particular, yet he is loath to spend. "You cannot every time buy a player when you have an injury or where do you finish? England, the whole of Europe, is bankrupt and everyone continues to spend like nothing happened. We manage in a sensible way at Arsenal and that's why we are not bankrupt.''

Having lost Samir Nasri to the riches of Manchester City, Wenger finds it "unfair" the presence of contrasting financial philosophies in the Premier League. "For us just to keep our players we are pushed to the limit with our wages. Some clubs have unlimited resources. That's why Financial Fair Play is needed.''

Talking of fair play, Wenger continues to splutter about perceived injustice from officials. "There's no conspiracy, but you want the right decisions to be made,'' he pleaded.

"Some people made a study of last season and we were second in the league considering the decisions of the referees, and we finished fourth. It showed we were two points behind the leaders. Last year, in the last six months what happened to us was unbelievable.'' So was his team's naive, disinterested performance at Old Trafford.

Worryingly for Arsenal fans, they remain depleted by significant absentees. They need individuals such as Arshavin and Walcott to raise their game, supporting Van Persie better. They need Per Mertesacker to start playing like a German international centre-half with 79 caps.

Otherwise, further pain awaits. "If you imagine a catastrophe you can always make life difficult,'' shrugged Wenger.

With Arsenal this season, fans don't have to imagine a catastrophe.

From Old Trafford to the Liberty Stadium via Ewood Park and Craven Cottage, they've seen them. For all their progress in the Champions League, it's time for Arsenal to get a grip of their season in the Premier League or risk losing their sanity. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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