Football: All disquiet on the Wenger front

Champions' League: Arsenal manager remains calm after a stormy week that exposed alarming frailty; Andrew Longmore examines the crisis testing a wise man's renowned resolve
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IN the immediate aftermath of Arsenal's undignified exit from the Uefa Champions' League, Arsene Wenger was unwilling to join the adult education class. "It is difficult now to know what lessons we can learn," he said. For all the valid excuses, the simple truth was that the pretensions of the English champions had been rudely exposed by a group which, apart from Dynamo Kiev, does not exactly represent the cream of Europe. "It is an average group and the disappointment is that it was there to be won easily," Wenger acknowledged. So how semi-skimmed does that make Arsenal? Arsenal now have to draw against Panathinaikos in Athens to avoid sinking to the bottom of Group E.

Though the fans remained defiantly loyal to the man who won them the Double, disquiet was voiced within the squad by Marc Overmars and Martin Keown, and the reluctance of Wenger to sign a new contract - or any big- name players - suddenly took on a wider significance. The well-publicised sale of Duncan Ferguson to Newcastle United over the head of the Everton manager, Walter Smith, and a similar sleight of hand by the West Ham accountants had already reopened football's oldest schism. Arsenal seemed the natural arena for another confrontation between the itchy fingers of the manager and the tight fist of the chairman. But with a twist. This time it was Wenger, not the Arsenal board, checking the price tag. Arsenal have been linked to a number of high-profile names without success: Patrick Kluivert, the De Boer twins, Dion Dublin, Kwanku Kanu, even Alan Shearer and, until his move to the North-east, Ferguson himself. But deals have foundered on a combination of Arsenal's tight wage structure and Wenger's own value- for-money creed.

"I was interested in Dublin," Wenger said. "But the price was too high. I feel a responsibility to do the right thing for the club and if you pay pounds 5m for a player who is 29 or 30 it is not an investment." It would be, though, if Dublin's goals help take the title to Villa Park. In the 444 minutes since Arsenal last scored, Dublin has netted five - and missed a penalty.

News on other potential winter purchases remains tantalisingly vague: Alan Shearer is not on the market, but if he was Arsenal would be interested, and speculation about the imminent purchase of Nwanku Kanu of Milan is "not correct". Though, added Wenger with that famed half-smile, it might become correct. In other words, watch this space. Arsenal supporters will hope that a deal will be done sooner rather than later because Nicolas Anelka is not experienced or robust enough to carry the attack on his own.

Visibly tense in the early stages of his weekly meeting with the press, Wenger relaxed enough under questioning to shed some light on the inner thoughts of a very private man. Psychology is one of Wenger's great skills, not the motivation by fear practised by the old-fashioned manager, but the gentle journey to enlightenment and self-fulfilment enjoyed by Tony Adams. The Frenchman's astute handling of the tension between the English and foreign players at about this time last year, after a home defeat by Blackburn, proved the basis for Arsenal's surge to the championship. But there are signs of a deeper sense of malaise in the Arsenal side now.

"I've had many difficult periods in my life," he said. "My challenge now is that we bounce back and that the team does not get too disappointed. I am hugely disappointed that we lost the game [against Lens] and that we at the moment are not performing like I would like us to. But I am more concerned about the players than about myself.

"I tend to be quiet in the face of adversity. After the game at Wembley I went home and read. In our job there is no normal reaction. When you lose, you are always too negative, when you win, you are always too positive. I know that. So I try to get a bit of distance away from the game and to think really what is the real problem because if you lose small problems can become bigger than they should be."

Some wonder if Wenger has been subject to the reverse process. Dispassionate analysis seemed to have led him to the dangerous conclusion that Arsenal have simply been unlucky in Europe. There was some justification in the view. An offside goal by Lens heightened the sense of injustice already stirred in Wenger's mind by the loss of pivotal players: Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit against Kiev and Lens at home, Dennis Bergkamp, Anelka, Overmars and Adams in Kiev. Take Deschamps, Del Piero and Zidane away from Juventus, he said. No squad can absorb such mass depletion.

Moving to Wembley has also proved as much a curse as a blessing, exposing an ageing backline to swift counter-attack while lifting opponents. The televised concentration on Manchester United's glamour group further depressed a lacklustre campaign. But in pinpointing the bad luck of a draw that forced Bergkamp to miss two crucial away games, in Athens and Kiev, because of his fear of flying, Wenger's well honed powers of logic deserted him. Qualification for the pounds 10m European jackpot cannot be dependent on accidents of geography. Arsenal's chances of progress disappeared with the loss of late equalisers in Lens and to Kiev at Wembley. "One-nil to the Arsenal" has not been a resonant refrain in Europe.

In the short term, with Adams' back needing total rest for six weeks, Bergkamp, Vieira and Petit all absent injured, a routine home match today against a resilient Middlesbrough side has turned into a real test of Arsenal's resolve.

"The first thing we have to do is react quickly and show we are strong mentally," Wenger said. In the long term, more critical decisions will have to be taken in the boardroom if Arsenal are to stay among the elite in England, let alone Europe. David Dein, the Arsenal chairman, has already said that he would not contemplate paying pounds 10m for a player nor pounds 35,000 as a weekly wage.

United have been prepared to do both and look set to prosper both in the Premier League and Europe. "Every club has to live within their resources," Wenger said. "United have different resources and that is a disadvantage for us. They can go out and buy some of the highest paid players but they still have to stick to a wage structure; ours is just lower than theirs. But if it was just a matter of money, it wouldn't have taken Real Madrid 30 years to win the European Cup again and Inter Milan would win it every year."

In the all-enveloping culture of greed, such decent husbandry is admirable, but the game is travelling at an alarming pace at present and Arsenal, who led the way into Europe with the import of Bergkamp, have to match strides. While striking gold with Petit and Vieira, Wenger's other buys - Christopher Wreh, Luis Boa Morte, Remi Garde and Nelson Vivas, for example - have been bought in at the expense of some excellent home-grown talent and have done little yet to prove their worth at the sort of level expected of champions.

All are still inexperienced, but Boa Morte's woeful bungling of a clear run on goal on Wednesday left many hankering for a trip down Memory Lane. Ian Wright, just turned 35 and in rude health for England on the same stretch of Wembley turf the week before, made such goal dashes his hallmark. The thought must have crossed Wenger's owlish brow as well.

Yet, at the end of his most challenging week at the club, Wenger remained calm and courteous. Nor had his well-documented passion for the game been diminshed by mounting problems. "I live football 24 hours a day and I don't feel as if it's a burden, I enjoy it." Crise, quel crise was the gist of his message. One defeat was no reason to panic, he said, nor to change his footballing philosophy. "We have to stick together and show real Arsenal spirit, not go crazy like some other clubs." The trick now is to learn from the lessons and to come back wiser for another dose of the Champions' League or its expanded equivalent next season. By that time, Wenger should have signed his new contract. He promised to do so next week.