Wenger's attitude

THE French have a phrase for it of which Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, will be all too well aware.


Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (left) shows his anger after Patrick Vieira was sent off when he took a kick - which admittedly didn't make contact - at Manchester United's prolific Dutch centre-forward, Ruud van Nistelrooy, in the English Premier League match at Old Trafford. -- Pic. REUTERS-

THE French have a phrase for it of which Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, will be all too well aware. Quis' excuse, s'accuse. Who excuses himself, accuses himself. And Wenger tried to excuse himself and his team after that recent appalling show of post-match hooliganism on the field, at Old Trafford. Let me refresh your memories. In an ill-natured goalless draw, Arsenal's French international midfielder, Patrick Vieira, had been sent off the field for his second yellow card, having, when prone, taken a kick — which admittedly didn't make contact — at Manchester United's prolific Dutch centre forward, Ruud van Nistelrooy. The Dutchman arguably over-reacted and Vieira was sent off though he might well have been expelled anyway, since, to try to kick an opponent, even if you do not connect, is an offence in itself.

The remaining Arsenal players were, however, incensed and after Van Nistelrooy, near the end, had hit the bar with a penalty and the final whistle had been blown, they gathered around him, jeering and threatening. Martin Keown, the Arsenal and England centre-back, leaped up and down like an ape on speed, and struck Van Nistelrooy across the back of the head. Ray Parlour thumped him from the front. Others abused him. To his enormous credit, Van Nistelrooy did not attempt to retaliate. He simply ducked his head, ran the gauntlet and made his way off the field. Within days the Football Association announced that they would charge half a dozen Arsenal players for their behaviour, raising the very real prospect that the Gunners would be materially weakened for weeks to come.

Vieira's red card was no less than the 52nd incurred during Wenger's seven-year reign, and I have written in these pages before about his indulgent attitude to his players' offences. So I suppose we could only expect that after the match he would limit himself merely to calling Van Nistelrooy a cheat and subsequently in a Press Conference inveigh against the outrageous, treacherous media who, we were to believe, were the true source of the trouble.

After Van Nistelrooy had hit the bar with a penalty and the final whistle had been blown, the Arsenal players gathered around him, jeering and threatening, with Martin Keown (right), the Arsenal and England centre-back, leaping up and down like an ape on speed, and striking him across the back of the head. -- Pic. SHAUN BOTTERILL/GETTY IMAGES-

"We are a team and we will fight for our players," he promised. "We'll do that more than ever. What we can defend is the severity of the charges. I've watched it again and we over-reacted and I apologise for that. We should not have reacted and it will not happen again. What I will say is that I could charge you (i.e. the media) with over-reaction. I would like you to come out as strongly when football is really in trouble... We are guilty of over-reacting but you react like we've killed somebody. We well defend our case as strongly as we can. The FA have reacted to media reaction; it is a Sky (B SKY B TV) trial. Some guy with no responsibility decides what is shown."

Eh? The cameras were simply levelled on the field and what they showed was simply what took place. Was Wenger seriously suggesting that they should have turned their lenses bashfully away and shown fascinating shots of the crowd leaving the stadium? "Do you not think it's farcical what happened?" he recklessly pursued. "Was anybody really hurt? Was there an elbow in the face or an exchange of blows? We must keep things in perspective."

Which was precisely what he wasn't doing. The Old Trafford game took place a few days after the Gunners had wretchedly lost their first European Cup match of the season 3-0 at home to Inter, their defence a fiasco, their full-backs inept, their new goalkeeper suspect, their centre-backs confused. To bring matters into proportion, Inter in their first three Series A games played sadly mediocre football and were not much better in their second European game at San Siro. They squeezed out a 2-1 win against Dynamo Kiev with a very questionable equalising goal and a 90th minute headed winner by Christian Vieri. Days after their easy 3-0 win at Highbury, they could do no better than draw 0-0 at San Siro with the newly promoted Sampdoria team, whose close marking 4-4-2 formation hardly allowed them a shot at goal, whereas at Highbury they seemed to score every time they broke away.

Wenger could protest that thanks to the colossal expense the Gunners have incurred with the attempt to build a nearby new stadium at Ashburton Grove they have not been able to give him the money to strengthen the team in the close season. Yet, that still doesn't explain why, for example, he sold Matthew Upson for �1 million to Birmingham City, only to see him become a fairly regular England international, while keeping the gruesomely vulnerable French centre-back Pascal Cygan, who cost him a wasted �2.1 million. Or why he hardly ever seems to bring through a player from the colossally expensive youth scheme at Highbury, or why he carries on with backs like Ashley Cole, who did, it is true, come through the juniors but cannot defend to save his life, and Lauren, who isn't a full-back at all. There was plenty of time in the recent past to see and remedy such weaknesses. Besides, looking at the Gunners' appalling European record over the years, it must be said that failure, such as the defeat by Inter, simply conform to a pattern. Only once in Wenger's time have the Gunners even got beyond the early stages of the European Champions Cup.

Yes, they've accrued honours galore at home, but the true litmus paper of managerial success is surely to be found in Europe and there Arsenal under Wenger have failed time and again. Their second European game saw them fail to score against modest Lokomotiv in Moscow, where Keown, who played well, afterwards protested that though he did wrong at Old Trafford it was such an uncharacteristic aberration. Hard to accept when you reflect that he has incurred no fewer than half a dozen red cards over the years.

There is a true temptation to regard the Gunners under Wenger as giant rabbit killers, capable of winning Championships and F.A. Cups at home only to fail time and again when it come to Europe. Auxerre, Barcelona, Fiorentina — when in a state of crisis — Inter Lens (after which two of their players brutally fouled their French opponents — have all defeated them in London.

And Rome should have done so last season. As for the awful disciplinary record it cannot be too strongly stressed that apart from its moral aspects, it condemns player after player to drop out of the game for weeks, while he serves his suspension, to the severe detriment of the team.