Loss another low point for Wenger

BY Jamie Trecker • January 22, 2012

Arsenal’s top-four hopes hit the skids in a big way on Sunday as Manchester United pulled out yet another win against the struggling Gunners. It wasn’t as grave as the 8-2 thumping Arsenal endured at Old Trafford back in August, but today’s 2-1 loss may prove to be far more costly.

For tonight was the night that Arsene Wenger lost his fans.

He might also have lost his team.

Booed off the field in strikingly personal fashion, Wenger is rightly being torched tonight for his decisions during the game. Or, at least one decision: Removing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain over the objections of captain Robin van Persie. In his place, Wenger put in Andrei Arshavin — who promptly allowed Valencia to glide in and feed Danny Welbeck for the winning goal.

It was an inexcusable gaffe from a veteran manager. With Oxlade-Chamberlain in the game, Arsenal were able to pull one back thanks to his service to van Persie. Without Oxlade-Chamberlain, the little spark the Gunners had was extinguished.

Worse, the fragile Arshavin — who has been notoriously poor these past two months — was subjected to a torrent of abuse from the home fans. Not only were the partisans rightly second guessing their manager, they were also rendering their verdict on a player whose best days seem long since past. It was Roman, it was brutal, and it may have ended any hope that the Russian can recover and replace the absent Gervinho as a wide playmaker.

Wenger seems to have lost his ability to read the game. He also seems to have lost his ability to bluff. Post-game, he offered a surprisingly shallow defense, telling the media that the sub “didn’t work out.” He then followed that up with characteristic defiance: “You do not need to agree with it…I stand up for [the decisions.]”

No one’s buying it. In fact, all it does is reinforce the growing perception that Wenger is more inclined to make excuses and cast blame elsewhere than to address problems.

His myopia has long been a subject for discussion. He has been famously obstinate when it comes to spending and is not expected to make any moves in the January window, despite having a makeshift defense and only one pure striker available. Arsenal badly needs defensive cover, a playmaker, and someone to take the load off van Persie up top — but the Gunners aren’t expected to budge even with funds in hand.

Before the game, Wenger told the media that his reasons were simple: “England is broke, Europe is broke, but Arsenal is not broke.” But Arsenal’s not a hedge fund – it’s a soccer team. All the fans care about is that the trophy case is barren, not that the bank account is full.

Wenger always has his eye on the future, and he justly deserves credit for that. But it’s the present that bedevils him, and with that has come second-guessing about his main currency. Wenger has cultivated his image as the thinking man’s coach — he doesn’t have the sure touch of a Jose Mourinho or the pure force of personality of Sir Alex Ferguson. He’s supposed to be smarter than this. Of late, he’s not looking too clever.

This fall was alarmed by the team he had on the field and was forced into some panic buying — a first crack in the professorial image and at least a sideways admission that his youth program hasn’t paid dividends. Theo Walcott has been erratic, Aaron Ramsey has been serviceable if not spectacular, and many of his other young players have simply been blown away from the pressure of playing too hard, too soon (Jack Wilshere, out injured, is a fine case in point).

The most charitable fans might point to Wilshere’s example as the reason for Wenger’s game management today. Certainly, Wenger would like you to think so — he claimed Oxlade-Chamberlain had “given everything.” Clearly van Persie, with his dramatic, astonished reaction, did not agree. And back on the pitch without the young man, the Gunners’ play ran flat.

Arsenal now sit 10 points behind Tottenham — a ravine. They are five behind Chelsea and have Liverpool and Newcastle breathing hard behind them. They must quickly regroup to face Aston Villa on the weekend in the FA Cup and on paper, at least, have a soft month ahead before they face AC Milan in the Champions League. By rights, they should win their games against Bolton, Blackburn and Sunderland.

But on today’s evidence — the eighth loss of the season and the third straight for the first time in five years — Arsenal should take nothing for granted. They are a team in dire straits, and without an injection of fresh blood and ideas, they will not be in Europe next season.

That may well mean new ideas at the top — and the end of Wenger’s reign.

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