Tetchy Wenger feels the strain

Miguel Delaney spent some of yesterday in the company of an under pressure Arsene Wenger

Eventually, all Arsene Wenger could do was attempt to make a joke.

“We will buy Lionel Messi in January and we will surprise you.”

He wasn’t exactly laughing, though. At the same time, Arsenal’s media officer was ushering the manager away, trying to hurriedly bring an already short — and fractious — press conference to a close.

That little vignette encapsulated Friday at the club’s London Colney base. It started with Wenger smiling and attempting to appear upbeat despite just experiencing what was arguably the worst defeat of his career. It ended with him getting irritated and snapping back, especially when he described stories of a rift with Steve Bould as “lies”. Very quickly, this became an unfortunate illustration of a man under pressure.

Worse, that was evident in almost everything he said.

Most of the time, Wenger is a master at playing the media. While he may not always answer questions directly, he is sharp enough to completely deflect attention with a clever line. Yesterday, though, he was doing what he never does: quibbling over little details, attempting small victories. When the subject of Gervinho’s price came up, Wenger shot back at one journalist that the forward didn’t cost £11m, but £8m — despite many of the club’s own statements saying he was more than £10m.

Again, it summed up the day and situation. With every defensive comment, Wenger only seemed to open himself up to new criticism. The easy image is of a man attempting to put out flames only to see another flare up beside him, and the clearest example came from the key issue: whether there is enough fire in the current team, both in terms of spirit and attacking quality.

It started with the most pertinent question: why Wenger continues to completely take the blame for his players, and whether they actually care enough. “I am responsible for the results... You think they don’t care and they go home and think they had a fantastic game? They do care. Don’t worry.”

What will worry Arsenal supporters, though, is the next statement. “I have had groups who had fantastic results who were less serious than these players, believe me; players who were less focused than this team. Of course, these players are hurting.”

On one level, that’s admirable. On another, it’s an answer that again leads to a multitude of other, more searching questions. Was that an admission that the current team isn’t good enough? Is the training and system actually ill-suited to such inferior players? Can they get better? Is this the best they have to offer? And, if so, how does Wenger plan to rectify it?

It was just when such questions were ratcheting up that Arsenal’s media officer started bringing things to a close. Wenger did, however, explain what he sees as the main difference between this team and previous, trophy-winning sides.

“We have not kicked on [from third place last season], that’s true. But we have rebuilt a team this year and we’ll see where we finish. The difference is that we have created a new team. I believe that some players have come in, some players have come back from injuries and we have to show now until the end of the season that we have the quality I believe we have.”

‘Think’, however, is the key word because it’s genuinely hard to say whether Wenger actually believes that statement. Even beyond the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, the biggest indictment of Arsenal is that they don’t actually play enticing football any more. Whereas once they were quick and technical, now the technical players are too slow and the quick players lack technique. It all adds up to disjointed football, exacerbated by a dreary Emirates atmosphere.

The ultimate reasons for this, of course, always return to the same cyclical arguments. On the macro level, there is that stadium to pay off and the fact they are one of the few teams with a net-spend in an era of petrodollars.

On the micro, though, none of that explains a series of flat performances and poor results against teams with less resources, not least Bradford.

Where all of this may come together and make things a little clearer, however, is in the issue of wages. Whatever about expenditure, Arsenal currently have the fourth highest bill in the Premier League, not too far behind Manchester United. They may not pay anyone £200,000 a week but they might if there wasn’t so many mediocre players on more than £40,000.

When this was put to Wenger, he again fudged the issue. “First of all, you don’t know their wages. Secondly, you accuse us of not paying the wages the players want and, on the other hand, you accuse of giving them the money they want.”

That wasn’t the point. The same bullishness arose when asked about the general quality of his squad — or lack of it. “Names?” Wenger requested.

Yet, when some were put to him — such as Gervinho, Marouane Chamakh, Andre Santos, Park Chu-Young and Sebastien Squillaci — the Arsenal manager said he didn’t “want to go into individual assessments”.

“Gervinho is a good player... Chamakh was free. Squillaci was nearly free. You cannot say that we have a squad of no quality. They are international players.”

Was that a joke to finish with?


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