Who do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Wenger

Liverpool 1 – 0 Arsenal

1 – 0 Garcia (87)

Gerrard missed penalty (31)

“We were unlucky, I feel that we controlled the first half but created chances. We can take many positives from tonight”

So why mention the missed penalty? Because it’s an easy way to heap praise on Jens Lehmann, possibly the only Arsenal player to emerge with any credit from the match tonight. Having received his fair share of criticism for his antics on Saturday, he proved today that he is by far and away the best keeper at the club and deserving of his place in the side. Should he continue this form, Arsenal will finish in 4th place and all of the players can give their bonuses for this achievement to him. Provided of course that the remaining 10 outfield players can remember that they have to shoot to actually score a goal.

At this point, I could harp on about the (incorrect) offside against Adebayour but to be honest, Liverpool deserved to win. And not just by 1 – 0. There could have been no complaints if the scoreline had been 4 – 0. Arsenal were unlucky in terms of being 3 minutes from gaining a much needed point but that is the only term in which the word unlucky can be applied. As the home side, they had to take the game to Arsenal. They did so, and in the end got their just reward. But for Lehmann, the headlines would have been about a St Valentines Massacre at Anfield. I will not comment on the rest of the team. I could but I am making a conscious effort to minimise the bad language in this blog. They were shocking. And completely devoid of any leadership; Thierry Henry may be the team captain but his outward appearance is one of someone who is not an inspirational leader – more of a moody teenager. Maybe this is his Gallic “Je ne sais Quoi”. If so, it’s not the actions of a Captain but merely proof that his captaincy was a sop by Wenger in order to try to secure his services beyond the terms of his current contract.

“At the moment we are struggling for confidence and that can affect the senior players as well as the younger ones,”

What is of concern is the effect that the current form may have on the younger players in the squad. The older players will come through this patch of indifferent form – they have in the past and will do so in the future. With a clear week – no club or international matches at all – to allow the coaching staff and manager to earn their corn by boosting the confidence of the players for their next match, Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu. We must take into account that this is possibly the first serious test of character that many of the team have had to encounter. The younger team players have had a relatively easy ride thus far in the first XI. They are suddenly finding that sauntering through Carling Cup ties, trouncing Premiership opposition is a far cry from the serious business of the week in, week out hurly burly League matches. This will be a period in their careers that will define many of their characters. Come through it and they will be a strong group of players for the future at Ashburton Grove. Fail and the clubs regeneration may take longer than they are predicting, i.e. beyond the end of next season. And the question therefore arises, is it fair to put them under such pressure. Yes, there are injuries to senior players that mean many of them are playing more games than they may have expected last August. After all, losing one left back is an accident, two is unlucky but even losing the last choice could be considered careless. And now right back is starting to look that way. Don’t even start me on Centre Backs. For sure, Sol Campbell’s “issues” could not have been foreseen. But where is the cover? Senderos is having a rough time of it but undoubtedly possesses the quality to come through the other side. However, in order to remain successful it is surely better to bring through youngsters in 1 or 2 positions at a time rather than en masse in ¾ of the team.

Which is where the transfer policy of Wenger is now called into question. To sign for the future is admirable but if the club is too remain successful it is not prudent to fail to balance this out with experience. Once you get past the first line of Arsenal when fully fit, the imbalance is apparent. Who is the experienced cover for Gilberto, Campbell or even Henry. There is none. But why is Wenger adopting this policy? By his own admission he had money to spend in the summer. Yes, he lost out to Real Madrid for Baptista but to be honest, it was no surprise. After all, he is a Brazilian playing in Spain, who was 12 months from qualifying for Spanish nationality which means that he can move anywhere in Europe without needing a Work Permit. But he is not the only Central Midfielder in the world. Why limit your targets to one choice per position? I know he is trying to buy players to fit the system but frankly there were others he could have afforded, that excuse is merely a cop out. He has bought in the January window but the title was gone by then and 2nd place was looking a distant dream. Could it be his fixation with Chelsea’s purchasing power precludes him from bidding for established players? It is well documented that he believes he cannot compete with them once they decide to bid for a player, although this belief has proven incorrect in recent times. Instead of bemoaning their millions, (and according to the Spanish Daily, Sport, they have bid €45 million for Eto’o) he should merely highlight the number of players that they possess and their quality. Play it up through the media – make sure that the Spanish, Italian, French and God knows who else’s papers get the story. The selling clubs won’t like it but it reinforce a view that is held, i.e. it is starting to look as if you’re mad if you sign for Chelsea unless you are one of the elite players in the world. We’ll take someone who is not quite that good and maybe Le Professeur will mould them into another Henry, Vieira or Pires.

It is not just the players who are now being tested. Wenger himself is under scrutiny like never before. The club have a 60,000 capacity stadium to fill come July and they will have been budgeting for Champions League football, the UEFA Cup is a poor substitute in Revenue terms. Failure to qualify raises the spectre that for all of the Captains protestations that he will stay, the lure of Europe’s premiere trophy may mean a longer visit to the Camp Nou than a mere stadium tour on his summer holidays. Should he go, in footballing terms, he can be replaced – the teams style of play would need to be altered as the pace up front would be lost – but in marketing and revenue terms it will be difficult to immediately replace his popularity in the playgrounds and pubs across the land. Look at the replica shirts and see how many other players names are on the back – I rest my case. Wenger is now being watched by Arsenal fans to see if he can rebuild from scratch. Let us not forget that when he took charge of the club, the defence was ageing but still able to play for several seasons, Bergkamp was in his prime and the forward line wasn’t too bad either. This time he is building a new team with few experienced players with which to form any sort of long term base. Even then, the current squad is going to be losing several of these in the next season and a half. Bergkamp goes at the end of this season, Cole will probably go either this or next summer, Pires and Lehmann will probably leave in 2007 (if not before), Campbell probably only has two seasons left and Ljungberg cannot continue to play with such indifference and expect to retain his place. I do not doubt that Wenger is capable of the rebuilding task but should it take longer than one season, I have my doubts as to whether or not he will have the heart for it at this stage in his contract. What is apparent that the Directors will give him as long as he wants. However, there will come a point where they have to put a time limit on the task if Revenue becomes too pressurised.

Today’s tunes – two tracks from one of the most influential indie bands of recent years, The Pixies.

The Pixies – Gigantic

The Pixies – Debaser

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