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Page last updated at 16:30 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 17:30 UK

Arsenal style earns scant reward

Arsene Wenger


By David Ornstein

On 11 February, Arsenal sat at the top of the Premier League with a five-point lead over Manchester United, while Chelsea were a further three points adrift.

And the Gunners had got there in style.

But nine weeks later, only the sense of style remains. Arsenal's lead has turned into a nine-point deficit and their 2-1 loss at Manchester United on Sunday has taken Sir Alex Ferguson's side to the brink of the title.

606: DEBATE
BBC Sport's David Ornstein

And in the Champions League, the delight which followed Arsenal's superb victory over AC Milan has long since given way to the pain of their quarter-final defeat by Liverpool.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger believes a combination of bad luck, poor refereeing decisions and injuries are to blame.

But is Wenger's judgement beginning to look a little impaired after three seasons without a trophy? And what needs to be done to prevent the barren spell continuing?

HOW HAS A FIVE-POINT LEAD TURNED INTO A NINE-POINT DEFICIT?

When Thierry Henry, then Arsenal's talismanic captain, was sold to Barcelona in the summer of 2007, few gave Wenger's young charges any hope of challenging for major honours.

But the low expectations appeared to lift any pressure.

Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie filled the void left by Henry in attack, and a run of 15 wins and two draws in all competitions had the purists purring and Arsenal in control.

Eduardo
Eduardo had contributed 12 goals before his horrific injury

But a 5-1 drubbing by Tottenham in the Carling Cup semi-final second-leg in January hinted at problems - not least when Adebayor and 20-year-old Nicklas Bendtner were involved in an ugly on-field confrontation.

Admittedly, Arsenal had fielded a weakened side but a heavy defeat by such bitter rivals seemed to have a significant impact.

Wenger named another under-strength team to face Man Utd away in the FA Cup, and saw his side soundly thrashed 4-0. Although Wenger claimed that the domestic cups were not Arsenal's priority, serious damage was done.

If that setback was mainly psychological, there was, sadly, physical damage to come when in-form striker Eduardo da Silva suffered a broken leg at Birmingham.

The Gunners were clearly shaken by the horrific injury and squandered a number of glorious opportunities before conceding an equaliser at the death to draw 2-2 at St Andrews.

It was a turning point in the season. Arsenal have won just two of their last 13 games in all competitions since.

They have seen leads turn into draws or defeats on five of those occasions and struggled against teams they had were expected to beat such as Aston Villa, Wigan and Middlesbrough.

IS THE SQUAD STRONG ENOUGH?

There is no doubt Arsenal have suffered injury problems.

Van Persie and Tomas Rosicky have been out for most of the season, and when Eduardo also got injured there was little back-up for Arsenal's forward line.

The previously excellent Adebayor began to tire, Bendtner has failed to really convince he has enough quality, while Theo Walcott has been preferred as an impact substitute.

So should Arsenal have been in the market for Nicolas Anelka, who joined Chelsea for 15m from Bolton in January?

Nicklas Bendtner (left) and Emmanuel Adebayor
Bendtner (left) and Adebayor's square up at Tottenham

At the back, Arsenal developed a deep vulnerability. Losing the excellent Bacary Sagna to injury was a blow, but did Wenger make the right decision in moving Kolo Toure from centre-back to right-back?

Philippe Senderos came in to the centre, and he has suffered a torrid time.

Then Arsenal lost Mathieu Flamini, arguably Arsenal's most consistent performer, when he picked up an injury during the Champions League quarter-final second-leg at Anfield.

He was replaced by Gilberto Silva, but the Brazilian looks a shadow of the player he was last season, and is almost certain to leave in the summer.

Cesc Fabregas has appeared burdened by expectation and workload, and in need of a rest. But again, it seemed there was no suitable replacement, so the youngster was forced to play on.

Rather than enhancing his squad in January, Wenger actually reduced the numbers by agreeing to let highly rated midfielder Lassana Diarra, signed from Chelsea the previous summer, leave for Portsmouth.

Wenger insisted his squad was strong enough to maintain its challenge for silverware but results have proved him wrong.

The Frenchman is adamant he will sign only one experienced player before next season gets underway, despite pressure from supporters and the media to bring in new faces.

Can that really be enough?

MIGHT ARSENAL LOSE KEY PLAYERS THIS SUMMER?

The 38-year-old Jens Lehmann is no longer the first-choice keeper and has repeatedly criticised rival Manuel Almunia in public. Having almost rejoined Borussia Dortmund in January and recently spoken out against Wenger, he is widely expected to leave.

Jens Lehmann
Lehmann could be on his way out of Arsenal

Senderos is error-prone and his performance against Liverpool in the Champions League is reported to have left him in tears and unable to take his place in the squad for Old Trafford.

The all-important Fabregas, still just 20, is set to be keenly pursued by both Real Madrid and Barcelona this summer but he is tied to a long-term contract. Arsenal are sure to refuse all approaches.

Having allegedly met Inter Milan officials the day before Arsenal's win against AC Milan, midfielder Alexander Hleb is said to be a serious target for the Italian giants, while Flamini's contract expires in the summer.

The aging Lehmann and Gilberto aside, the loss of any of these players would pose a massive problem for Wenger.

And who is to say they may not be tempted to ply their trade at another club, even if it might mean playing a slightly less beautiful game?

Van Persie has gone on record as saying "we are like 11 actors, we have to give enjoyment to people buying a ticket".

But some of his team-mates may rate silverware more highly.

HAS WENGER GOT KEY DECISIONS WRONG?

Wenger has conceded he probably should have made signings in January, and it is fair to say that no-one could have foreseen Arsenal's injury crisis.

But, along with the Wenger's questionable deployment of Toure at full-back, some may feel he has erred in his selection of Gallas as captain.

The French international has sometimes fallen short of being a leader, most notably when he abandoned his team-mates to sit in the Birmingham half when his side faced a penalty. After the same match, he refused to leave the pitch.

William Gallas
Gallas's captaincy of Arsenal has been called into question

Gallas also claimed he has no friends at the club and he certainly won few among the fans for his display on a day when Arsenal's youngsters were desperate for guidance.

Wenger says a team is modelled in its manager's image. And there is much to admire - the flair, ability and their commendable commitment to attacking football.

But are they - and ultimately Wenger - sometimes psychologically fragile and prone to being overwhelmed by a sense of injustice?

Yes, there have been dubious penalty decisions which went against Arsenal in the Champions League, plus a lengthy injury list.

The line between success and failure can be very fine indeed. But perhaps cracks have appeared at Arsenal that need more than papering over.

And maybe - in contrast to Wenger's opinion, and despite the side's many moments of brilliance - this current crop at Arsenal are actually just not quite good enough.




see also
Wenger unperturbed by criticism
11 Apr 08 |  Arsenal
Man Utd 2-1 Arsenal
13 Apr 08 |  Premier League
Wenger sticks to his guns
09 Apr 08 |  Arsenal
Liverpool 4-2 Arsenal (agg 5-3)
08 Apr 08 |  Europe
Eduardo intent on swift recovery
24 Feb 08 |  Premier League
Wenger to stand by young players
09 Jan 08 |  League Cup
Tottenham 5-1 Arsenal
22 Jan 08 |  League Cup
Wenger signs new deal at Arsenal
07 Sep 07 |  Arsenal
Martin Keown on Wenger
06 Sep 07 |  Arsenal
Arsenal's European frustration
14 Aug 07 |  Arsenal
Fabregas vows to stay at Arsenal
13 Jul 07 |  Arsenal


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