Tuesday 20 March 2018

Wenger primed to lead the way

Arsenal manager's decision to stick to his beliefs is paying off in a turbulent season, writes Dion Fanning

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger

Dion Fanning

At half-time on the opening day of the season, an Arsenal fan sitting behind Arsene Wenger held up a piece of paper which, while lacking in artistic merit or nuance, succeeded in expressing a point. 'Spend. Spend. Spend,' it read, offering a simple solution to a long-term problem. By the end of the afternoon, Arsenal had lost at home to Aston Villa, the home supporters chanted 'Spend some fucking money' and Arsene Wenger walked in to meet the media looking like a haunted, hunted man.

"If we do not spend the money, it is because we do not find the players," Wenger said. His message was that Arsenal hadn't lost because of the failure to buy players but it was a message few wanted to hear.

"We couldn't go out at five to three to buy six players. People say always, 'Buy players, buy players, buy players'. When they tell me who that becomes more problematical."

Wenger's problem appeared to be that plenty of people could tell him to buy and after an opening day defeat, it wasn't just the fan with the piece of paper who had all the answers.

"I could understand that," Wenger said on Friday when asked about the anger last August. "It was the first game of the season and people had hope."

Arsenal fans have hope again right now, certainly more than they had at 5.0pm on August 17 so when Wenger said it was unlikely they would sign players in January, it was possible for Arsenal fans to fret but not become distressed.

In August, it was different. But Mesut Özil's arrival was a demonstration of ambition and a sign that Arsenal were now prepared to spend. Maybe even spend, spend, spend. "It was a very quick deal," Wenger recalled. "We were on alert with him but I thought it would be very difficult."

Arsenal could have difficulties strengthening their squad this month as well. Wenger wished the January transfer window didn't exist but that might be due to the memory of signing Andrei Arshavin during another, more turbulent, winter when the supporters demanded change.

"If something special comes up and a player is available you would do it, but overall it should not exist. It is always a rush hour and every press conference is about who you might buy and not the next game. To find players to strengthen a club like ours at this time is nearly impossible. It is not about the money just the potential."

Tomorrow, Arsenal play Villa again and a victory would assert their right to be at the top of the table in the second half of the season, competing with clubs who have always thought it was about money more than potential.

Those sides continue to offer an obstacle to Arsenal but their results since they lost 6-3 at the Etihad and followed it with an uninspiring performance in a drab game at home to Chelsea suggest that they can remain in the fight.

After the defeat to Villa, they didn't lose in the league again until they went to Old Trafford in November and if the losses suggest a familiar problem for Arsenal, an inability to believe in the possibility of victory when faced against the most powerful in the league, then they have overcome it with results against the rest in an unpredictable season.

There are injury concerns and a fear that come the spring, Arsenal might be back where many anticipated at the beginning of the season -- scrapping for third and fourth and out of the Champions League.

Wenger lost Theo Walcott for the season and others have laboured, but Olivier Giroud and Özil are expected to be back tomorrow, while there is a chance that Aaron Ramsey could be available also. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, injured on the opening day, may start on the bench and could have a key role in the coming months.

Wenger compares Oxlade-Chamberlain to Steven Gerrard and believes that he will have settled into a midfield role by the age of 23 or 24. Oxlade-Chamberlain will be 21 later this year and he has already demonstrated that he can be more than another young player at Arsenal whose day will come at some point in the future.

Arsenal need the future to arrive at last and if they could add to their squad this month it would help.

During the game against Cardiff on New Year's Day, another Arsenal fan, perhaps aware of Wenger's early-season complaint that nobody provided detail when they asked him to buy players, produced a banner which had more than the crude admonishment to 'Spend, Spend, Spend'.

It said, 'Shopping list for Arsene: Diego Costa, Cavani, Jackson Martinez' and it seemed to please the fan greatly that he had this opportunity to display his knowledge. It would be no surprise if, on the other side, he had written a breakdown of the systems employed by Atletico Madrid, PSG and Porto and how the players could adapt to Arsenal's pattern of play.

Yet if Arsenal are to contest the title when the shadow play is over, or stand a chance of knocking Bayern Munich out of the Champions League, they could do with a better striker than Giroud.

They ended up with Özil in the last transfer window, a player who has brought class and elegance to a midfield that was happy to have more of these qualities. Yet if they hadn't botched the attempt to sign Luis Suarez, Arsenal might have had all they needed in a striker.

Everything that has happened since the opening day of the season would appear to confirm Wenger's view of football which remains in opposition to much he has to endure. On that day, Villa appeared to have put their problems behind them -- "We don't look back," Paul Lambert said while Wenger seemed certain to have harder days ahead. Wenger was right that Arsenal should have beaten Villa on the day, something which all that has happened since would support.

"If you look at the numbers against Villa it was amazing that we lost the game because with 10 men we had 64 per cent possession and they had only three shots on goal," Wenger recalled last week. "But it was just the result that happened and you have to live with that. We didn't have a disastrous game, it was just when you get two penalties against you at home . . . that happens only once in 17 years."

Arsenal's failure to win a trophy for the last nine of those will always be held against Wenger but English football has changed this year and Arsenal could be ready to exploit those changes.

Wenger has observed what is going at Manchester United and offers a sober explanation. "Ferguson was there for 27 years. When he appears in the stand the cameras are on him. It is what players do on the pitch that wins you the games not who is in the stand. It is well not to go overboard. The problem is now because Man United do not win all the games it must go on him. He's the man who's missing but I think that's the wrong problem."

Wenger has often sounded like a man alone, unconcerned by problems that others thought were crises. He says he agrees with Ferguson's idea that retirement is a young man's game, something Ferguson stated with great conviction until the moment he retired.

In the new world order, Arsene Wenger is ready to lead.

Irish Independent

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