Wenger at bay

WHEN Arsenal's urbane French manager Arsene Wenger took to extolling his own team and their prospects, you wondered whether he was giving hostages to fortune or, to vary the metaphor, counting his chickens before they hatched.


Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger speculated about going through the League season unbeaten, but it didn't happen. — Pic. AFP-

WHEN Arsenal's urbane French manager Arsene Wenger took to extolling his own team and their prospects, you wondered whether he was giving hostages to fortune or, to vary the metaphor, counting his chickens before they hatched. Even his greatest rival and sharply contrasted character Alex Ferguson of Manchester United publicly warned him about it. Wenger speculated about going through the League season unbeaten. It didn't happen. He lauded the qualities of his team, only to find that they could win none of their three home matches at Highbury in the second group phase of the European Championship Cup, and were forced to obtain at least a draw in Valencia to survive in their final game.

Prior to that, Arsenal's failings and weaknesses had been all too coldly exposed in just five days; a home draw in the Euro Cup against a 10-man Roma, an embarrassing Premiership defeat on the following Saturday at Blackburn Rovers. And if on both occasions Arsenal were obliged to field weakened teams with inadequate players in key defensive positions, whose fault was that but Wenger's? Two international defenders, England's centre-back Sol Campbell, and left-back Ashley Cole, were missing, injured, from both matches.

For a big, rich club like the Gunners, it shouldn't have been too hard to replace them; but it surely was. The 6 foot 5 Frenchman Pascal Cygan was a disaster at centre-back, truly a dud buy which made you wonder why on earth Wenger had been so eager to offload Matthew Upson, a million pound teenager when he'd joined the Gunners from Luton before playing a single league game, unlucky with injury, but surely a better bet than the slow, hesitant, confused Cygan. But Upson had recently been sold to Birmingham City after going on loan to Reading.

Martin Keown at least was fit to play in both games, deeply involved in controversy against Roma when Francesco Totti's outstretched hand seemed to brush his face, he went down like a dead man and Totti was sent off. Keown however would not survive the Blackburn game when he went off injured with a pulled muscle, which would keep him out for weeks.

It was a sobering thought that one of the substitutes for his position was another of Wenger's bizarre buys, the Latvian international Stepanovs, who had almost always when picked — which was seldom — looked unimpressive. As for the left-back position, it was unfair on the Dutch international mid-fielder Giovanni van Bromckhorst to expect him to do duty there, as he simply isn't a defensive player. He had a hard time against Roma and the overlapping Cafu while at Blackburn he was simply taken apart by the Northern Ireland international, Keith Gillespie. Again you had to ask why there was no appropriate cover.

The failings of Arsenal's patched up defence were horribly obvious when Roma all but grabbed victory in the final phases of the Euro game. Great gaps appeared and enabled Cafu to run on down the right to put over a cross, which left the substitute striker Vincenzo Montella with a free header. Luckily for the Gunners, he sent it wastefully over the bar and they survived to draw. Ingloriously.

At Blackburn, Cygan committed the cardinal sin of turning his back on Tugay as the Turkish midfielder swept through, en route to driving home his team's second goal. Hard not to think, for those of my generation, of France in 1940. If a centre-back at this, or really any other level, isn't brave, what use is he going to be?

It all made me think about Gilles Grimandi, the French midfielder or at times central-defender who left Arsenal last summer after several undistinguished seasons of sustained mediocrity which made you wonder, as in the case of Cygan and Stepanovs, why Wenger, who clearly has a sharp eye for the gifted player, should have bought him in the first place and given so limited and sometimes ill-natured a player so long a run in the second.

Yet, Arsenal, under Wenger, boast other Frenchmen of tremendous talent; the electric Thierry Henry, who was originally under Wenger's command as a youngster at Monaco, and has turned into a centre-forward of superb flair, power and technique, that fine flanker Robert Pires, and the enormously influential midfielder Patrick Vieira, whose absence at Blackburn was all too notable.

Yet Arsenal's problems go far beyond mere personnel or the lack of it. The sad truth is that in European games they simply have not cut the mustard under Wenger. When they played and failed so often at Wembley you heard all that nonsense about the pitch being too big when they returned to Highbury, where the pitch in fact had been narrowed — hardly the royal road to good football — things hardly got much better. Before Roma, Auxerre have won, Ajax, despite giving away an early goal, and Valencia have drawn, in Euro games this season.

All very well to be brilliant rabbit killers, to go up to Maine Road and put five goals past a Manchester City team whose tactics, devised by Kevin Keegan left it wide open to swift attack. Another thing again to find a way through the far better organised defences of European opponents, especially when — my old bone of contention — the great Arsenal tradition, abandoned under George Graham, of having a skilled playmaker in midfield, has been abandoned.

What this means is that the Gunners, except in the person of Dennis Bergkamp — and he plays off the centre forward, not in midfield — lack the element of surprise are far too easily read. And when Henry has one of his dull days, as he did at Highbury against Ajax, when he doesn't go out to use his dynamic pace on the left wing, the Gunners find it very hard to score. Yes, I know they missed chances against Roma but none of them was remotely as good a chance as the one, which Montella missed for the Italians.

Cole did at least come through the youth scheme but for all the vast sums of money, which has been spent on it, what has it produced? It should long since have given Wenger the alternatives to unavailable first choice players, but where were the centre-backs to replace Keown and Campbell, where was the left-back to replace Ashley Cole? When the right-winger, young Jermaine Pennant, was loaned to Watford, he flourished. Back at Highbury, he's in the reserves again.