x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Arsene Wenger still waits for ideology to be vindicated

The Arsenal manager has a plethora of admirers. But until a trophy arrives, critics will also be lurking.

These are Arsene Wenger's wilderness years. Or so they are described, anyway.

Wilderness can be a strange way to brand annual top-four finishes and qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League, to talk of the glamour tie with Barcelona and the head-to-head battles for Manchester United for both the Premier League and the FA Cup.

Yet the six-year wait for a trophy continues.

Even a final where they were overwhelming favourites did not bring a coveted cup back to the Emirates Stadium. Instead Birmingham City are the Carling Cup winners. A historic triumph for them is a fresh embarrassment for Arsenal.

There was something sadly symbolic about Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny's 89th-minute mix-up, handing the winner to Obafemi Martins: it was a microcosm of Arsenal's flaws.

It was the inexperience of a 20-year-old goalkeeper, the lack of conviction of a central defender who does not possess the pedigree of many of Arsenal's attacking talents, the sense that this is a team that can buckle under pressure.

To some, too, it was a consequence of Wenger's prudence. Koscielny cost £9.7 million (Dh57.2m), but Szczesny was the home-grown alternative to buying a goalkeeper. There is no guarantee that a more expensive alternative would not have fumbled on such an occasion, but it appears unlikely.

The belief that the young Pole could be Arsenal's goalkeeper for years to come ensured there was no short-term fix in the transfer market. Wenger has always looked long term, but the future remains frustratingly out of reach.

In many respects, Arsenal are the most accomplished side in England, yet moments of fragility mean the pragmatists draw unflattering comparisons with their battle-hardened counterparts at Old Trafford.

Manchester United do not lose cup finals in the 89th minute, the theory goes, or give up two-goal leads to lose a derby at home, as Arsenal did when Tottenham Hotspur visited the Emirates Stadium in November.

Or contrive to turn a four-goal advantage into a draw, as happened to the Gunners against Newcastle United. In short, the constancy of purpose of winners can desert them.

And yet … Robin van Persie's Wembley equaliser was a goal of rare beauty, the sort that few teams can muster. To then lose the Dutchman on a day when Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott were already sidelined was a cruel blow. Misfortune seems to stalk Arsenal.

Overwhelming as last season's 4-1 defeat to Barcelona at Camp Nou was, it was a depleted team that Lionel Messi dominated. Barring recoveries, a lesser line-up will head to Catalonia again next week and then on to Old Trafford in the FA Cup.

Wenger is accused of diversionary tactics when he alludes to "financial doping", when he makes none-too-veiled criticisms of Chelsea's spending. That is unfair.

While the Arsenal manager has chosen his battleground, that does not make it level. As he could argue, Portsmouth won the FA Cup in 2008 with a team bought on credit, but their triumph was followed by administration, relegation and humiliation.

It may be little consolation in the immediate aftermath of a crushing setback, but what Arsenal are producing, in contrast, is a level of sustained success that is rare.

With a presence in the Champions League assuming paramount importance, football's parameters have changed and Arsenal, on a budget, have remained resistant to decline.

The gripes about Wenger's reluctance to pay for a proven world-class goalkeeper and central defender have some logic, but that ignores the reality that his ethos has made the club's progress possible.

No one else has blended economics with aesthetics so seductively, but the Frenchman still needs the trophy that would offer ultimate vindication. And now it looks even harder to secure.

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Wolverhampton Wanderers' 4-0 hammering of Blackpool was remarkable in many respects.

As Mick McCarthy's enigma of a side tended to reserve their victories for the elite sides, it suggested a belated recognition that the more conventional way of escaping demotion is to defeat your immediate rivals.

After another catalytic display, it suggested Jamie O'Hara might rank as January's best recruit and that, following his outstanding attempts to save Portsmouth from the drop last season, the on-loan Tottenham Hotspur midfielder might have found a cause that is not doomed.

For Blackpool, the immediate prognosis is bleaker. Last week's stirring win over Tottenham was followed by a capitulation, while DJ Campbell's dismissal means their most vibrant striker is banned for the next three games, the first of which Charlie Adam will also miss. Factor in other results and they are very much back in the relegation mix.

And yet the fact it was only Blackpool's third thrashing of the season - and the others were by Arsenal and Chelsea - should offer some perspective; theirs has been an extraordinary season.

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At a time when West Ham United seem intent on shaking the unwanted tag of a one-man team, it may seem perverse to focus on that individual.

Yet though Demba Ba and Thomas Hitzlsperger are lending support, Scott Parker remains the inspiration.

His colossal performance in Sunday's 3-1 win over Liverpool included a technically-brilliant goal to augment a brand of drive and dynamism that meant Steven Gerrard was thoroughly overshadowed in the midfield. Great Scott, indeed.

 

sports@thenational.ae