Arsenal in trouble

In Arsene Wenger's and Arsenal's defence it has to be said that they have of late been suffering from several notable absences, above all that of Thierry Henry, troubled by injury all season, and surely unwisely sent off against PSV at home whereupon he damaged both his stomach muscles and his groin.

Long, long ago, way back in 1943, when I was a schoolboy Arsenal fan, I remember a headline in the now defunct `Evening News' column witted anonymously by "The 12th Man": `What's wrong with the Arsenal?' It was in the middle of the War, and the truth was that a very powerful team consisting of most of the Gunners' pre-War stars was now breaking up, as its members, in the Army and Air Force, were posted overseas. Far more recently, in the 1970s, when peppery, pompous little Bertie Mee was managing the club and results were going wrong, I remember phoning him for an interview and beginning by quoting that old headline. The response was a flood of resentment, on the lines of, "I know you've got your living to earn," and a refusal to talk to me at all. The irony of it being that on the following Saturday the Gunners suddenly recovered form with an impressive win.

Well, we could well ask at the present moment, what's wrong with the Arsenal? Knocked out, in double quick time, out of both the European Cup and the FA Cup, beaten, albeit fielding largely a reserve team, by Chelsea in the Final of the League Cup in Cardiff hopelessly adrift in the Premiership, to the extent that fourth place, which they so narrowly gained last season, and with its cherished entry to the Champions League, is the best that they can hope for.

Yes, it all suddenly fell apart. You could understand their losing the League Cup Final, given the weakened team they put out, as they'd done all the way through, meeting a Chelsea team at full strength. Even so, and here is the first of charges against their previously sacrosanct French manager, Arsene Wenger, it seemed daft to give a hostage to fortune by using the Swiss international young Philippe Senderos at centre-half against the formidable power house of Drogba who, a couple of seasons ago, had run him ragged in swift succession, both in a Charity Shield pre-season match in Cardiff, then in the League at Stamford Bridge.

Horses for courses, as they say, and Senderos was surely the last horse to pit against his nemesis in Drogba. He duly helped to play Drogba onside when he sped away to score the equalising goal, and got fatally on the wrong side of him when a cross came over which Drogba duly headed into the net. Blame Senderos, or blame Arsene?

In the European Cup, Arsenal found themselves drawn in the first knock-out round against the hardly irresistible PSV team of Eindhoven, yet they could not beat them in either tie. In Holland, where they had most of the play but were frustrated time and again by a fine Brazilian goalkeeper in Gomes, they lost 1-0 on a breakaway goal. At the Emirates Stadium, the only goal they could score, though it gave them the lead, was an own goal by another Brazilian, the rugged centre-back Alex, who in fact had done them exactly the same favour at Highbury in a European Cup match a couple of years ago.

On that occasion, Alex's own goal was decisive. Now, however, he went upfield to equalise with a spectacular header from a carelessly conceded free kick, which put Arsenal out and PSV through. Hard to imagine the old Arsenal of Tony Adams' and Steve Bould's days being outjumped in such a manner. Alas for Alex, who turns out to be, salt in the wound, on Chelsea's books, he promptly pulled a hamstring a few days later in a PSV Dutch League game which put him out of the ensuing quarter-finals versus Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Arsenal contrived to get knocked out of the FA Cup, drawing at home, losing to a spectacular goal, however much against the play, by the South African, Benni McCarthy, to a Blackburn Rovers team against which just a few weeks earlier at the Emirates, one saw them rattle in six goals. The chief charge against the Gunners has been that for all the excellence of their approach play, they have been impotent in front of goal. Not that this has always in the recent past worried Wenger. Indeed after a goalless draw at home in the European Cup to CSKA Moscow, he insisted, the Gunners having missed a plethora of easy chances to score, that this was the best he had ever seen them play.

In his and Arsenal's defence it has to be said that they have of late been suffering from several notable absences, above all that of Thierry Henry, troubled by injury all season, and surely unwisely sent off against PSV at home whereupon he damaged both his stomach muscles and his groin. Missing for weeks has been the fast and penetrative Dutch striker, Robin van Persie, who could have made such a difference around the opposing goal, while that cleverly versatile Czech international Tomas Rosicky is another who has missed vital games such as the return match at home to PSV.

But it has been a strange season indeed for Wenger himself. Gone forever is the image of French `sang-froid', the man and manager always under cool control. And even in those days you did wonder how so civilised a figure could be coaching a team with such an appalling disciplinary record, a very avalanche of red cards. This season, and even at the end of last, you might say that Wenger has been a red card man, himself. Late last season when I was present he made a bizarre attack on journalists at a Press conference because they had in one instance quite correctly attributed his mild enough retort to the ineffable Jose Mourinho's accusation of being a voyeur. When Arsenal played at home to Spurs, two of their players collided and Spurs went on to score, Wenger accused the innocent Spurs coach Martin Jol of lying when he said he'd not seen what happened.

More recently, Wenger has been in severe trouble for accusing another quite innocent party, the linesman of the League Cup Final which finished with a brawl and saw Emmanuel Adebayor sent off, of lying. Most explosively of all he wholly lost his self control on the touchline at West Ham when the Hammers scored a very late winner and the rival manager, Alan Pardew, went into excesses of delight. Wenger had to be restrained. And Mourinho is forever goading him, prodding at him, claiming some sort of moral superiority at Chelsea where, we are supposed to believe, a more relaxed and philosophical approach prevails.