x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Arsene Wenger finds the solution

Over the course of a couple of months of on-pitch rehabilitation, even his fiercest critics should concede that the Frenchman has gone from problem to solution for Arsenal.

Arsene Wenger, right, has had his critics this season, but with 10 wins in 12 games and Arsenal on an eight-match unbeaten run, the Gunners are well-placed to challenge for a top-four Premier League finish.
Arsene Wenger, right, has had his critics this season, but with 10 wins in 12 games and Arsenal on an eight-match unbeaten run, the Gunners are well-placed to challenge for a top-four Premier League finish.

For much of the past 15 years, it was Arsenal's greatest fear. And then, as theories that obstinate idealism was propelling them into decline gained credence, a section of their support began to embrace the idea this summer. And now, once again, it belongs among the worst-case scenarios.

The notion that Arsene Wenger might leave was inadvertently advanced by the manager himself.

Coveted by Real Madrid and Barcelona in the past, eyed by cash-rich Paris Saint-Germain, the economist who is disdainful of the over affluent has his own brand of loyalty. His exit, should it come before his contract expires in 2014, would be prompted by a sense of disappointment rather than a sizeable budget on offer elsewhere.

He would walk away, he said, only if Arsenal failed to meet his standards. Yet such comments became public knowledge as Wenger's side continued in exceeding expectations.

After their terrible start to the season, featuring the historic low of the 8-2 defeat at Manchester United, predictions of their demise were commonplace. Some suggested Arsenal would be fortunate to escape the lower half of the table, many thought a top-four finish was unfeasible.

Yet now Arsenal are likely to qualify for the Champions League's knockout stages as group winners and are full participants in the five-way fight for the Premier League's third and fourth places.

Saturday's 2-1 victory at Norwich City rather symbolised their season so far: behind after a shocking piece of defending, they staged an impressive comeback.

Given their persistent defensive difficulties, their revival may be built on shaky foundations but the scale of it is impressive nonetheless: with 10 wins in 12 games and an eight-match unbeaten run, Arsenal are confounding the pessimists in their own support as well as detractors elsewhere.

If their renaissance has been engineered by the remarkable Robin van Persie, whose brace at Carrow Road took his tally to 31 goals in 29 league games in 2011, Wenger remains the architect.

Man for man, his side compare unfavourably to many of their predecessors, but their capacity to come from behind, highlighted in the 5-3 win over Chelsea, is evidence of character. After Arsenal's failure of nerve in the final three months of last season, that is an admirable response.

Moreover, shorn of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal have not suffered from a drop in creativity. They could have scored six times in the first half at Norwich alone. Profligate then, Gervinho nevertheless illustrated that he gets into some wonderful positions. Capitalising on them is crucial, but the Ivorian appears further proof of Wenger's transfer market acumen.

So, too, does Aaron Ramsey, whose career in north London was cruelly interrupted when he sustained a badly broken leg at Stoke City in February 2010. His belated re-emergence has at least had the benefit of compensating for Jack Wilshere's absence; a long-term pairing of the precocious should restore Arsenal's optimism about the future.

In the meantime, the assured Mikel Arteta has slotted in seamlessly since his £10 million (Dh57.6m) move from Everton. If the Spaniard is the only one of the five end of August additions to be a success so far, the belated arrivals have at least assuaged the feeling that Arsenal's squad was razor thin.

Though he excels when overlapping, Andre Santos has an idiosyncratic interpretation of a left-back's duties which means he entertains neutrals and concerns Gunners in equal measure, while Per Mertesacker, as predicted, is a ponderous presence in the centre of defence.

Nevertheless, Wenger recognised the departments that required strengthening and acted.

Further investment is required while improvement will need to be extended to ensure another top-four finish. Neither Wenger nor a fan base who cherish memories of more dominant and dependable teams are likely to get carried away, especially as the recovery is over reliant on the Van Persie's fragile fitness.

And yet, over the course of a couple of months of on-pitch rehabilitation, even his fiercest critics should concede that Wenger has gone from problem to solution for Arsenal. He is, as he always has been, indispensable.

Helguson head and shoulders above

Promotion can be a problem for those who are pigeonholed as Championship players. As squads undergo an upgrade, they can suffer. So the context makes Heidar Helguson's success for Queens Park Rangers all the more heartening.

At 34, the Icelander's best days appeared behind him, especially when Neil Warnock signed two other strikers, DJ Campbell and Jay Bothroyd, in the summer and plans to add others in January.

But the veteran has emerged as QPR's top scorer with his brace securing an excellent win at Stoke on Saturday. The header that brought QPR level, in particular, was typical Helguson; a striker under six feet tall, he has long been excellent in the air, as he showed in the land of the giants.

A first for Giggs

Given the partisanship of most football fans, it was pleasing to see the majority of the Swansea City crowd applaud Ryan Giggs off the field when the midfielder was substituted during Manchester United's 1-0 win at the Liberty Stadium.

It also proved that, in his 886th United game and nearing his 38th birthday, there is still scope for novelty in the veteran's career. For the first time, the Welshman actually played against a Welsh club side in his homeland.

 

sports@thenational.ae