x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Wenger losing the case for defence

The Arsenal coach remained tight-lipped on the form of Gael Clichy, who was given the run-around by Silvestre Varela, the Porto winger, all evening.

Wenger argues his case with Swedish referee Martin Hansson from the sidelines.
Wenger argues his case with Swedish referee Martin Hansson from the sidelines.

As Arsene Wenger selected Arsenal's starting XI for Wednesday's Champions League last 16, first-leg tie against Porto, one suspects the Frenchman - whose intrinsic knowledge of the global game is well-documented - would have been aware of two surprising statistics: the Gunners had failed to score in two previous visits to the Estadio do Dragao and had never won in Portugal. Ninety minutes and a controversial 2-1 defeat later, Wenger's post-match decision to chastise the performance of Martin Hansson, the Swedish referee, was as weak as his side's back-line. "It is difficult to understand how the referee can interpret that," said Wenger of Falcao's highly-contentious winner - a quickly taken, indirect free-kick which further punished hapless Gunners goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski after he inexplicably picked up a Sol Campbell backpass in his area. "On an indirect free-kick, if you allow the team to play quickly, just five metres from the goal, how can you defend that? It was unbelievable and difficult to understand. It is completely inappropriate that he allows that in such a situation."

Wenger's words, however accurate of the series of events, fail to resonate. Observers will remember his candid assessment of a quickly-taken free-kick by Thierry Henry, the former Arsenal striker, which also led to the winning goal in a 2-1 Premier League victory against Chelsea three seasons ago. "I don't agree with the rule because it's difficult to defend - but that is the rule," said Wenger at the time. "I feel that it was an intelligent exploitation of the rules. The goalkeeper has to adapt as well. I don't know why if you are a goalkeeper you stand by the post to line up a wall if you know the rule is like that. It is in the interest of a player to always say he wants to take a quick free-kick. But the rule has to be clearer," he added. With Fabianski motionless and Campbell's movements impaired by Hansson's position between the defender and the ball, there are plenty of contentious areas for Wenger to justifiably seek clarity.

The one area he can not contest, however, is the clever and rapid manner in which Ruben Micael toed the ball to Porto's prolific Colombian forward Falcao to stroke it nonchalantly into the unguarded net. Controversial? Yes. Illegal? No. Wenger's description of Henry's previous goal confirms such. But far from hypocritical, Wenger's scorn camouflages something else, a larger worry. After admitting Campbell's pass had been "accidental" - Campbell had earlier scored Arsenal's equaliser - Wenger remained tight-lipped on the form of Gael Clichy, who was given the run-around by Silvestre Varela, the Porto winger, all evening. Only 10 minutes had gone when Varela nutmegged the defender, strode towards the byline and fired in a cross-shot which a wrong-footed Fabianski bizarrely palmed into his own net. Aside from the Pole's horrendous handling error, the goal highlighted the extent to which the disappearance of Clichy's once-blistering pace, formerly his primary attribute, has now become his biggest weakness.

Now that the final whistle finger-pointing has died down, however, Arsenal would do well to heed the words of their inspirational captain Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard, so often the Gunners saviour this season, risked his manager's wrath when he insisted Falco, Micael and Hansson had done nothing wrong. "When you concede these goals you cannot go anywhere, schoolboy goals, what can you do?" Fabregas remarked. "Maybe we are still a little soft in that aspect. As a team when we concede we are not strong enough to lift ourselves. We were not strong enough to stand up and play well." To ensure their progression at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal must tighten up defensively to stop a Porto side which attacks with pace, dynamism and threat scoring a potentially tie-clinching away goal. One expects they will, but this tie is far from over. emegson@thenational.ae