Friday 20 April 2018

Weary Wenger wilting before first shot fired

Gunners manager engulfed by gloom of last season, aware his brittle team can't hope to match United and City, writes Dion Fanning

Already Arsene Wenger is so tired and so weary. There has been a familiar pattern in Arsenal's season. After seven or eight months of talking about the potential of his side and how he believes this will be the time they demonstrate to the world the greatness he has seen behind closed doors, Wenger is let down by his brittle side.

Something goes wrong during those defining weeks: they stumble into Manchester United in the Champions League; William Gallas leads his team through their moment of doubt by sitting on the pitch and wondering what is wrong with everyone; most of 2011.

In August, the morning should be bright with a new season's promise, but last season's gloom never lifted. There has been no summer rejuvenation, at least not yet. "When we get up in the morning, we do not really want to suffer, we would like an easy day," Wenger said recently. "It's not normal for a human being to suffer. But, if you want to be successful, you have to push yourself."

He has been suffering for too long. The defeat in the Carling Cup final to Birmingham and the surrendering of a four-goal lead at St James' Park were the moments that stood out last season. In those moments, it became clear that all Wenger said about his team would be viewed by the wider world as an increasingly bizarre eccentricity.

But the failure last season means that there may be less tolerance for the eccentricities. Arsenal won only three games -- one against Leyton Orient -- after the Carling Cup final on the last weekend in February. They did beat Manchester United at the Emirates, but that just added to Wenger's torment and this summer has been torture. On Friday, in Lisbon, he talked about Cesc Fabregas in simple terms, "I love Fabregas and I want him to stay."

The fans who booed the draw with the New York Red Bulls in a pre-season friendly last weekend might not represent most Arsenal supporters, but it is not just a symptom of modern impatience when fans display their dissatisfaction before they have anything concrete to be dissatisfied about.

At that moment, Fabregas and Samir Nasri were still Arsenal players. Arsenal could not afford to lose both of them if they wanted to be viewed as a big club, Wenger said. Most people concluded that Nasri would stay and see out his contract. Wenger is now said to be considering letting him leave as he has been disappointed with his attitude.

Barcelona's attempt to pay less for Fabregas than he is worth (although the player has some leverage as he is unhappy and doesn't want to go anywhere else) may encourage supporters into believing he will stay. Instead it will only prolong the agony, and the agony has been going on a long time.

Arsenal will have a busy August. They play Liverpool and the champions and must get past Udinese to qualify for the Champions League group stages. If supporters can boo in July, they will be primed to do it in September.

Wenger's commitment to his project has been noble and his commitment to Arsenal has been absolute. He may not have spent money because he felt doing so would damage the players he had placed his trust in, or he may have been forced to find an ideology to shape around Arsenal's reluctance to spend.

He clearly believed in what he was doing but he's too intelligent not to have questioned it as well. He has commented wryly on the attempts to compete with clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea, as well as the insatiable demands of supporters.

But irony, as Philip Roth said, is a hitch in the swing, a human consolation. They have no need to be ironic at Manchester City anymore when they can get what they want, whenever they want it. City were once football's great ironists but they have no need of those comforts now. They are everything Arsenal are not and they are the team to challenge Manchester United.

The weekend kicked off with rumours that Wesley Sneijder had signed for City. They don't need him but that doesn't matter because Manchester United do.

Roberto Mancini has said his side are still behind United, especially as they now face into the Champions League for the first time, and will need a big squad to compete.

They could have competed last season if Mancini had been more adventurous. They gave glimpses of what could happen but too often they played as they did when they faced United at Eastlands or went to the Emirates in January and wanted nothing but a point.

City have assembled the squad for every need. Mancini has suggested he will encourage his side to attack more and in Sergio Aguero he has another player of real flair.

It is hard to see how City can't attack with the talent they now have, although Mancini has already demonstrated that he can find a defensive way. They have qualified for the Champions League, their first goal, and they are the only club with title ambitions who are, at this stage, stronger than they were before.

A year ago they had lost out to Spurs for a Champions League place but now Tottenham are wondering how to recover. They are in a league of their own -- unfortunately it's outside the top four but just above clubs like Everton and Aston Villa.

David Moyes's side once had big ambitions but there is now unrest around Goodison. They might hold on to Phil Jagielka and have high hopes for Ross Barkley but that may not be enough to lift the mood. Blackburn look like a relegated team already, albeit it a highly entertaining one.

Liverpool have a better squad than they did at this stage last season but while Kenny Dalglish won't rule them out of the title race, they will know that qualifying for the Champions League will be a successful season.

If all the players Liverpool have signed in 2011 had arrived in the summer then the mood would have already tipped from positive to wildly optimistic.

Last season, people were tipping them for the title because they signed Joe Cole. Cole remains as a reminder of all that can go wrong and he is one of the players who need to be removed if Liverpool are to be truly hopeful again.

They have made some interesting signings. If Stewart Downing is over-priced, Charlie Adam might be a bargain if he can be as creative at a bigger club.

But the most important signing remains Luis Suarez. He made an explosive start and the most worrying factor in the signing of Downing is that Liverpool have spent £20m trying to get the most from £35m Andy Carroll. Last season, Suarez was more effective when Carroll didn't play. Carroll is a frighteningly destructive talent when he's fit but he's somebody with self-destructive tendencies when he's not.

Liverpool have progressed and they should progress again. Dalglish is under a different pressure to last season but it's nothing he hasn't experienced before. His appointment was the final act in restoring unity within the club and it should be enough protection if those moments come when the pre-season optimism isn't reflected in actual results.

Fernando Torres spent his final days at Liverpool looking gloomy and very little has cheered him up at Chelsea. The dynamics at Stamford Bridge will be interesting. Their summer spending so far has not promised the rejuvenation of the squad. Instead Chelsea have lost Michael Essien to injury, failed to lure Luka Modric (although it would be more precise to say Modric is allured and Daniel Levy isn't) and stuck with the rest of the ageing powerful presences.

There have been suggestions that Andre Villas-Boas is planning to drop Torres. So far Chelsea haven't bought the players to get the best from him. Villas-Boas also has to deal with a fascinating dressing-room. John Terry has taken the appointment of Villas-Boas as a sign that it won't be long before he too will be ready for management. He has spoken highly of his new manager but it's not too hard to imagine a situation in the future when the measures Villas-Boas has taken are no longer considered innovative but restrictive. He has established a strict disciplinary code and he will need to enforce it in a dressing-room which likes to get its way, even while going several different ways.

During Jose Mourinho's time, they had a leader but even then, the manager's style was to embrace the strong personalities and encourage their view that they had something to say. When he left them, they felt they had views left to give. Negotiating them will be Villas-Boas's greatest test. There should be more additions to the squad before the end of the month as Oriol Romeu is not what many were expecting when Carlo Ancelotti left and the talk was of rebuilding.

Villas-Boas understands Chelsea and he will know what to expect. Roman Abramovich has no interest in allowing a manager to build an empire. He is the emperor and the rest have a chance to impress in his court.

Manchester United have one emperor who has not lost his rage. Alex Ferguson has spent the Glazers' money this summer and this should have strengthened a club which won its 19th title last May.

Yet with Edwin Van der Sar and Paul Scholes retired and Ryan Giggs a year older, United may have vulnerabilities. They will benefit from having Wayne Rooney concentrated from the beginning of the season but there is a need for Sneijder or somebody to pick a pass in midfield.

After United's pre-season win against Barcelona, Ferguson said Tom Cleverley had the chance to replace Scholes, which would suggest United are getting ready to sign a replacement.

Ferguson also said 84 points will win the title this season, which is not an outlandish prediction given the levelling off in standard in the league. Last year, United won the title with 80 points and one of Ferguson's least impressive squads, which is neither a criticism nor faint praise.

If Sneijder arrives, although it now appears more unlikely, United will feel that the squad has been boosted.

City are determined to hound them and they have the means to do so. They will challenge for the title while Arsene Wenger searches for some peace.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport