Football: A calm head for the crisis

Ian Ridley meets the manager coping with pressure after the honeymoon
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The trouble with football these days is that it is getting harder to sort out a genuine crisis from a mere drama. Now Everton and Tottenham you are fairly sure about, but what of Liverpool and Newcastle? The latest, apparently, is Arsenal.

After last week's home defeat by second-placed Blackburn, their third in four matches, it has to be admitted that Arsenal's Premiership challenge does look in danger of evaporating prematurely. Spoiled supporters jeered the players from the field and since then, the predators have been prowling.

I understand Middlesbrough were among several clubs who were rebuffed after inquiring whether the 34-year-old Ian Wright might be available. Dressing-room discord between the various nationalities, mainly the English and French, was offered as a reason for the "decline". Arsene Wenger's authority has also been questioned.

In fact, the players banded together more strongly than ever last week. "Probably the closest-knit we have been all season," one told me after the club party at a London hotel last Sunday and a midweek get-together at, appropriately, the Cafe de Paris. Wright and Tony Adams have begun to take French lessons. The throwing of snowballs in training was seen as a sign of affection rather than antipathy.

It is certainly a crisis that anyone else in the Premiership, bar Manchester United, would like. Home games against Wimbledon tomorrow and Leicester on Friday followed by Spurs away next Sunday offer them the chance to chip away at United's 10-point lead. A home third-round FA Cup tie against Port Vale the next week precedes a Coca-Cola Cup quarter-final against West Ham. But despite all this, Wenger has been forced to defend his recruiting policy, coaching methods and record.

As Liverpool's sometimes prickly team dynamics proved in the '70s and '80s, players need not necessarily like each other. Respect for each other's abilities, however, is crucial and Wenger puts it neatly with Arsenal. "[Patrick] Vieira speaks more with [Emmanuel] Petit than Adams because communication is easier. But in the game he is able to put his foot in for Adams." he said.

He insists that there are more objective reasons for the recent hiccup. The absences - self- inflicted suspensions, it should be said - of Dennis Bergkamp especially, Marc Overmars, Vieira, Petit and Ray Parlour have been central, as has the time it has taken for them to re-integrate. "If we are short of two or three players, the younger replacements are not ready to play at the same levels as Manchester United," he admitted.

"We have a lack of fluency and with that a lack of consistency in a game. For one hour we are ahead, then suddenly we drop." The ageing of the team? "We were able to cope with that for 15 games. It is small things added one to the other that makes us less efficient. I don't think it is a physical problem. Maybe it was too easy for 15 games. Suddenly when you lose one or two you don't know what's happening and don't know how to react," he said.

In fact, what we are probably witnessing is the growing pains of a potential championship team, along with the transition from one successful era, with its very British management style, to a modern post-Bosman, pan-European approach.

If there is a rift between the English and continental players, it is to do with footballing cultures. Wenger's training methods, with afternoon sessions now that there are fewer midweek games, are thorough and scientific. The English players, though diligent, prefer to conserve themselves for matches. "They complain sometimes, yes," Wenger said.

Used to the intensity of George Graham, the Englishmen are also surprised by how quietly a defeat is taken. Though a team meeting was held three days after the loss to Liverpool, inquests are rare. Wenger, a man who does not speak out in the heated aftermath of a match, believes players are best left to learn lessons by their own conclusions.

In defence of Wenger, it is grown-up stuff, even if it sometimes eludes some players. His record of buying youngsters to reduce the average age of the squad has been wise while fewer injuries to older players and the development of such as Parlour also recommend his methods.

Against him, have been the sales of John Hartson and Paul Merson and the buying of some who either look short of quality and consistency or who are not punching their weight. Marc Overmars, particularly, seems tentative after his long absence from the game with serious ligament damage.

Then there is Wright, often a distraction of individualism when it comes to team ethos. Publicly, Wenger is as supportive as ever. "It is like Miss World when she gets her first wrinkle," he said of the current criticism. Privately, though, he may have been tempted to take the millions from such as Middlesbrough for Wright, were there an adequate replacement. For Wenger's intended 4-4-2 pressing game, along the lines of Manchester United, often falls down on Wright's preference to save himself for duty until his team has the ball. It will be interesting to see how the team responds to Wright's suspension from the Spurs and Port Vale games, and the inclusion of the teenaged Nicolas Anelka in whom Wenger has been seeking to instil "determination and desire".

None of this adds up to a crisis, though. Deficiencies there may be, as with any soap-opera Premiership club these days - apart from Manchester United. And therein lies a modern problem of an inflated English game for whom the notion of in-depth competition is being challenged. All are at present in United's wake by comparison and accordingly judged grudgingly and unrealistically.

As Wenger said: "You have to recognise they have done 10 years' work and they had five years when they didn't win anything. Who today would have this time? When you lose three games, it's a revolution." Arsenal are simply at a potentially dramatic, but short-term crossroads in a season they hope is on the route to fulfilment.