x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Two sides to Arsene Wenger's Arsenal team

A brave comeback to beat Aston Villa in the FA Cup may vindicate the manager but it was a performance that frustrated the supporters.

Robin van Persie, the Arsenal captain, left, scored twice and Theo Walcott once in ‘six crazy minutes’ against Aston Villa on Sunday night.
Robin van Persie, the Arsenal captain, left, scored twice and Theo Walcott once in ‘six crazy minutes’ against Aston Villa on Sunday night.

Next to an image of Arsene Wenger's face was a message. "For the brave nothing is too difficult," read a banner at the Emirates Stadium.

It was an apt choice of words. Arsenal can specialise in making life difficult for themselves but there is an undeniable bravery to Wenger's idealism.

There is also stubbornness, a refusal to accept he is wrong and a persistence with players that many believe are substandard.

Yet purism is not eschewed for pragmatism, adventure is not demoted below efficiency and youngsters are not jettisoned for proven leaders.

It means Arsenal's triumphs are not simply victories, they are vindications for Wenger. After three successive league defeats, after trailing 2-0 at half time to Aston Villa, this was a glorious triumph, secured by a stirring, stunning comeback.

A regulation 1-0 win would have been less satisfying. Arsenal had fashioned their own problems in a flat first half and solved them in a sensational second.

Frail and fabulous in the space of 90 minutes, they highlighted their weaknesses and illustrated their enduring appeal in the proverbial game of two halves.

The two Arsenals were encapsulated by the enigma on the right wing. Theo Walcott was frustrating before the break. After it, his pace was both unleashed and channelled, Walcott running at the slower Stephen Warnock with unashamed directness.

The winger's goal was fortunate in one respect - a panicking Alan Hutton walloped the ball at him and it rebounded into the net - but was deserved in another.

This Arsenal side are not the equal of their illustrious predecessors but they still have the attacking armoury to excite.

In particular, they still have Robin van Persie. The Dutchman's pair of perfect penalties took his tally for the season to 25 and his Arsenal total to 120, level with his great compatriot, Dennis Bergkamp.

And yet, while the captain's goals were decisive, this was no mere case of individual inspiration. The collective transformation was remarkable, Arsenal's shared commitment to storming the Villa goal epitomised when Laurent Koscielny glided forward from the heart of defence to win the second spot kick.

This was a form of bravery, showing the courage to desert his station at the back to determine the tie. It brought a third goal in seven minutes, yet the most influential intervention surely occurred off the field.

A manager who seems more of an academic than a motivator may dispense a rollicking calmly but he instigated the turnaround.

Seven days earlier, his impact had proved pivotal. The removal of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Andrey Arshavin had prompted Wenger's disciples to become heretics, defeat against Manchester United following with the Russian replacement proving culpable for the winner.

The chant of "you don't know what you're doing", deployed then, was probably being readied again at the interval. Yet being an Arsenal fan is a confusing affair. Many booed their side off after 45 minutes and cheered them emphatically after a further 45.

The half-way verdict was that a glorious chance to secure their first silverware in seven years was being squandered. The eventual outcome suggested that, especially with both Manchester clubs already eliminated, the FA Cup may yet be their reward for the most troubled season of Wenger's 16-year reign.

Yet predicting Arsenal's prospects is a risky process.

Familiar frailties were apparent when Richard Dunne climbed above Koscielny to head in Robbie Keane's cross.

Villa's well-worked short corner merely reinforced Arsenal's reputation for struggling to deal with set pieces. Then Darren Bent, precisely the kind of professional predator Wenger refuses to sign, made it 2-0.

What followed was exhilarating as Arsenal were irresistible.

It may yet prove a season-defining day, one with vast implications for Wenger at a time when unrest was increasing.

"In Arsene We Trust," the famous flag, used to double up as a motto. Now it is a question. But the believers were given grounds for their faith. It was difficult for Arsenal, but not too difficult.