Whither Wenger?

Arsene Wenger... problems aplenty.-AP

Before the Gunners’ crucial League game against Manchester United and just after their elimination by Liverpool from the European Cup, manager Arsene Wenger lamented at length their alleged ill-fortune, writes Brian Glanville.

There is an old French saying, “Qui s’excuse s’accuse.” Meaning he who excuses himself accuses himself. As a learned Frenchman, Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s manager, must be well aware of it.

Though it could hardly have been in the forefront of his mind when, before the Gunners’ crucial League game against Manchester United and just after their elimination by Liverpool from the European Cup, he lamented at length their alleged ill-fo rtune; the penalties given and not given. After defeat at Old Trafford, he was at it again, seeming to hint darkly, on the television, at some kind of conspiracy though he would not elaborate on the subject.

You can understand his dismay, with Arsenal’s season running out of hope, eliminated by Liverpool from the European Cup, robbed of a clear penalty when Alexander Hleb was fouled in the box in the London first leg, pray to a series of bad refereeing decisions some weeks earlier when they were frustrated at Birmingham, losing their Croatia striker Eduardo for months to come, after a shocking red card foul.

Yet, what goes around comes around, and he might have reflected on his misery at Old Trafford that the goal with which Emmanuel Adebayor put the Gunners ahead was certainly only helped by a handball.

And Wenger’s own contribution to his team’s troubles cannot be ignored. There is, for example, the case of the teenaged Theo Walcott. Though it has taken a pretty long time for Walcott to excel, following his hugely expensive transfer from Southampton in 2004, flourish he emphatically has in recent matches; as a classically fast, elusive and effective right-winger. Coming on as a late substitute and transforming the Arsenal attack with his pace and skills and initiative.

This though for some time Wenger has been insisting that his true position is as a striker. Difficult to believe, after Walcott’s superb displays against Milan, twice, and Liverpool. Each time as a substitute, Wenger insisting that he is not yet ready to play a full game. Yet surely this begs the question of whether he should start, rather than come on late, when a game might then have been won and lost. If Wenger believes, rightly or wrongly, that Walcott cannot yet last a full game, what is to prevent him beginning it and later if he seems to be tiring, replacing him? Surely it’s as broad as it’s long.

In the two Euro ties against Milan, Walcott was simply irresistible. In each game, he laid on an ideal chance for Adebayor, wasted in London when he headed against the bar, knocked home without difficulty at San Siro, after Walcott had rampaged past Milan’s centre-back.

At Liverpool, Walcott surely surpassed himself, winning the applause of Fabio Capello, England’s Beckham-obsessed new manager, in dashing some 80 yards through a bewildered Liverpool defence before making a goal for Adebayor.

It was hard to understand why in these various games, Wenger had chosen to start with Eboue on the rightwing. No genuine right-winger, but rather by nature an attacking and somewhat abrasive right-back. Surely, one thought, Wenger would have done far better to use Eboue in his natural position.

This, rather than inexplicably move the reliable and resilient centre-back Kolo Toure out of the centre and on to the defensive right flank, where he was far less at home than he would be in the middle.

Despite Theo Walcott’s (left) superb displays in recent times, Wenger insists that he is not yet ready to play a full game.-AP

This seemed hard to understand in that one of the centre-back positions went to the ponderous Swiss Philippe Senderos. He’d acquitted himself well at San Siro, but was floundering at Anfield. After which it was said that the poor fellow was suffering from a severe crisis of confidence.

This was not the first time that Wenger had made a controversial choice with a centre-back, or backs. He paid, a few years ago, no less than £2.1 million for the lanky Pascal Cygan, but the Frenchman never convincingly settled down at Highbury. One still remembers one dire moment in a European Cup tie there when he headed magisterially, into his own goal.

Yet, Wenger preferred him to the then young Matthew Upson, who had arrived from Luton Town for £1 million without any League experience. Upson proceeded, at Birmingham City and now at West Ham, to win caps for England. Not a defender of outstanding talent, but surely one better equipped to do a sound job than Cygan.

Yet, Wenger is a shrewd enough operator in the international transfer market, which Barcelona have good cause to know. He sold them for a high price the Dutch international winger Marc Overmars, who played very little thanks to injuries.

And last summer he commanded a large fee for Thierry Henry, regarded as the inspiration and cutting edge of the Arsenal team.

But this season, at Barcelona, Henry has been a deep disappointment, this, whether because he cannot rule the roost as he did at Arsenal, what with Messi, Ronaldinho and Eto’o around, thus often forcing him out to the left-flank, where, with the Gunners, he would move there by choice.

Thanks to the meteoric rise of young Cesc Fabregas, the Gunners have not missed the seemingly irreplaceable presence and prowess of Patrick Vieira, in midfield.

Many of us were sceptical when, after Vieira’s departure, Wenger reflected that players could come through the ranks and succeed. But little Fabregas, though physically dwarfed by Vieira, and only a teenager at the time, did exactly that.