Tuesday 24 October 2017

Wenger losing force of will

Arsenal's manager may only be paying his project lip-service, writes Dion Fanning

When Arsene Wenger found himself unable to defend his team's performance in the San Siro last Wednesday, it looked like a commentary on his state of mind as much as the abject performance of his side.

Wenger sounded like he might have lost the ability or the desire to protect this team. Arsenal's manager has always been prepared to make himself look foolish to spare his players from criticism but the Arsenal he saw in Milan were beyond his unconditional devotion.

The pitch at the San Siro offered a handy scapegoat but Arsenal's performance was as bad as Wenger said. And it was a very bad pitch.

Arsenal and Wenger's future didn't depend on last night's result against Sunderland, but defeat, and the manner of it, has made things much worse.

All that is left for Arsenal is the scuffle for fourth place and the chance to buy some time, if Wenger can make it that far in a season which, once more, will be trophyless.

How Arsenal spend the summer will determine Wenger's next step but the San Siro and the Stadium of Light have suggested a mutual weariness.

Everybody knows which players Arsenal lost last summer but nobody knows what Wenger lost.

He lost a leader in Cesc Fabregas but there was always an inevitability about his return to Barcelona. Losing Samir Nasri to Manchester City was, in many ways, of greater significance.

Nasri was a troublemaker and self-indulgent but Arsenal needed him more than Manchester City did. Yet Wenger could not compete financially. In fact, Arsenal could not compete with City as this season has demonstrated.

They will argue that they remain in the Champions League at least but even Wenger doesn't think that will be for long.

City's arrival forced Wenger to go against his instincts but the signing he made in the final hours of August had the sense of a man who lost the ability to trust his judgement.

Wenger has had to fight fires. He had fought so long for the idea that he should see his project reach maturity and then last summer, he compromised on his principles. He didn't compromise by signing Juan Mata and, say, Phil Jones. He compromised by signing Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Andre Santos and, on loan, Yossi Benayoun.

These weren't men to abandon a project for but they were bought to conceal the panic, as Thierry Henry was brought back in January to create a welcome diversion as Arsenal edged towards mediocrity and lost every league game in January.

Henry disguised this bleak reality but he couldn't last week.

Wenger's instincts may have been wrong but they were for all that the instincts of a genius. The increasingly discontented Arsenal supporters might have celebrated the arrival of Arteta but they were, with some justification, not hailing him on Wednesday night.

Wenger's genius was always wrapped up in his ability to make the signing that was less than obvious and then watch as those who wanted the big names had to admire in silence.

He brought in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the summer and that signing, at least, has followed a familiar pattern.

Wenger has been criticised for leaving him out by those who wondered why he was signing potential again last summer.

He's entitled to disregard their views but when they coincide with a defeat like Wednesday's and the feeling that the players are also ambivalent then the manager, never mind his achievements, is in trouble.

If Arsenal were to be judged solely on Wednesday night's game, they would be seen as a team that had lost faith in their manager's methods or even worse.

There was no sense of players playing even for their own sense of self-worth and Wenger, in his refusal to tolerate it, has sensed the drift from the basic standards of professionalism. Wenger has made mistakes but he is a managerial genius while, with the exception of Robin van Persie, he has few players he can depend on.

There have been moments this season when it looked as if the old ways and the new could mesh but they have rarely been convincing, even when Arsenal were winning 5-3 at the equally adrift Chelsea.

The truth came out against Milan. Arsenal sent for a player on Wednesday at half-time but instead they were merely summoning a statue of Thierry Henry, turning to a legend.

What happened on Wednesday night was far worse than the humiliation of Old Trafford in August. Arsenal lost three points at Old Trafford, even if they lost them 8-2.

It drove them -- for better or for worse -- into the transfer market. Arteta was not the man to replace Cesc Fabregas nor even Nasri but he has been a useful Premier League performer.

The man to replace Fabregas continues his injury rehabilitation. Losing Jack Wilshere has been a blow from which Arsenal will recover if he returns to the team fully fit next season.

Wenger hopes he will return before the end of March and play his part in the pursuit of a trophy.

Old Trafford was a humiliation but with Carl Jenkinson and Francis Coquelin in the side, it could be seen, most benignly, as something to learn from. The only lesson to be learned from the San Siro is that the team is no longer listening to Wenger.

He may also have grown weary of them.

There was a moment of bleak humour a few weeks ago when it was suggested that Theo Walcott was concerned with the direction the club was moving and might hesitate before extending his current contract.

This might not be enough to make Arsenal play like they did in the San Siro on Wednesday night, but it would surely make a few people question a 50-50 tackle. Losing Walcott would be a bonus for Arsenal.

Walcott was hauled off at half-time last week but his lack of effort told the real story of an Arsenal side which still can call on some talented players but doesn't know when it can call on them.

By the end of the week, he was insisting that it was important Arsenal don't "feel sorry for themselves".

Self-pity was an emotion Wenger scorned at his peak. He viewed it the way he viewed luck -- an irrelevance for a team that could make its own success through force of will.

He has abandoned many of his maxims, bringing back Henry, the act of an illusionist, a trick of the light, rather than the action of a pure football man.

He has been worn down by the strict adherence to his project. Others stopped believing in it long ago. Wenger may also now be only paying it lip-service.

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