ARSENE WENGER was doing his best to stay perky but there was no disguising it.
He looked tired – very tired, in fact, bags bulging under each eye and a brow so furrowed it resembled a ploughed field.
The Arsenal manager attributed his weary appearance to old Father Time – “You would be tired, too, if you had just celebrated your 60th birthday,” he pointed out – but there was surely more to it than that.
Wenger has endured some trying weeks during his Arsenal tenure, and particularly in the last four years, when the stream of trophies that once flowed to north London has run dry. But it is difficult to think of a time when Wenger’s own character has been dissected quite so brutally as in the last seven days.
After three straight defeats and ‘Handshakegate’ – as it must surely already be known – at Manchester City, Wenger has been variously labelled an arch-fantasist, supremely arrogant and lacking in even the most basic courtesies.
For a man who is used to being venerated as the patron saint of English football, it must have been a chastening experience. “I was disappointed by the results but all the rest, I can deal with,” he reflected. “It’s just that recently we didn’t get the wins we wanted. Apart from that, I am okay.”
At least there was a victory to toast here, although Arsenal’s luck is such that even three points come with a price. Wenger spent most of his post-match inquest listing the players currently cluttering the treatment room at the Emirates: Emmanuel Eboue (muscle), Armand Traore, (hamstring), and Andrey Arshavin (ankle) were all felled in action on Saturday, while Eduardo (thigh) did not even make kick-off.
Most serious of all was Tomas Rosicky, who failed to emerge for the second half after suffering a groin injury that is expected to rule him out for three weeks – the latest instalment of what is becoming an increasingly long-winded saga of ill health for the Czech.
Quite why Arsenal should be so cursed with injuries is a mystery. Wenger insists that his medical team is not to blame, claiming instead that the problems, which have also seen Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner and Abou Diaby ruled out for prolonged spells, are due to bad luck and past problems.
“It’s a vicious circle when you have been out for a long time,’’ he said. “Guys like Eduardo and Tomas had not played for 18 months. When you come back, your body has to get used to producing the energy levels again and it’s difficult.
“We pick up more injuries than the other big teams, that is true, but what is also true is that this is the worst season for injuries for us.’’
Sympathy will be in short supply. It was Wenger’s choice to stockpile the kind of small, scampering forwards whose limbs seem to be made of Balsa wood, a policy which stands in stark contrast to Chelsea, whose man-mountains appear impervious to serious injury.
Wenger conceded he may have to ditch his habit of a lifetime and dip into the icy waters of the January transfer window although, as he pointed out, “to find a world class player, who is not cup-tied in Europe and who is free, you need a good Father Christmas.”
There is certainly more chance of St Nick lining up at the Emirates than Ruud van Nistelrooy, the name currently being whispered on Holloway Road.
On Saturday, Wenger deployed Arshavin as a lone centre-forward – a tactical sleight of hand which did not overly complicate Arsenal’s afternoon. Indeed, Arshavin enjoyed one of his most productive days of a generally underwhelming season, seeing two shots well saved by Thomas Sorensen, winning an early penalty that Cesc Fabregas squandered and scoring the opening goal with a cute finish into the bottom corner.
But circumstances were in Arsenal’s favour here, with Stoke set up to nab what they could on the break. It is something else entirely to expect Arshavin to flourish as a solitary striker at the Britannia stadium or, indeed at Anfield on Sunday.
“I will have to see how it works away from home, but Andrey was not fanatical about the idea,” Wenger admitted.
Arsenal were never in much danger once the Russian had broken through, although the killer goal took its time in arriving. Abdoulaye Faye twice hit his own woodwork and Eboue inadvertently blocked Fabregas’ shot on the line before Aaron Ramsey, one of several youngsters in line to start in Wednesday’s irrelevant Champions League tie with Olimpiacos, snuffed out Stoke with a crisp finish in the 80th minute.
With Chelsea suffering a rare off-day, it was enough to cut Arsenal’s deficit to eight points, with a game in hand. “There is a gap between us now,” defender Thomas Vermaelen said, “but what I have learned about the Premier League is that every team can lose against other teams so we hope that Chelsea will lose more points. You always have to believe to win things.”
Wenger knows that only too well.
REFEREE: Mark Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear) 8: Very good. Spot on with the penalty decision and kept his cards in his pocket.
MATCH RATING: *** Arsenal were not at their polished best but even when they are so-so, they are still better than most.
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