Wenger has to scramble late salvage operation
Sunderland 2 Arsenal 0: Arsenal manager focuses on short term and hints at not being part of rebuilding process
The defiance came late on Saturday night, after Arsenal's season had imploded, and it came from the manager. It did not sound like Arsène Wenger was about to call time on his near 16-year love affair with an English football club. Wenger was prickly and feisty and stood up to a fairly severe battering in terms of answering questions about what has gone wrong. He would stand by this team, he asserted, and there seemed no question of quitting mid-season, but there was a curious pay-off line when he was asked whether this current team – one labelled the worst he could remember seeing by Roy Keane – would need a major overhaul in the summer.
"We have what it takes at the club and we will add what it takes," he said. "But at the moment I believe we are not making plans for next season, we are making plans for the next game."
Wenger was angry, and that has to be taken into account, but it brought to mind an interview he gave to L'Equipe in November, which provoked debate about his future, when he appeared to question a change in policy at the football club he works for, following the surprise deadline day signings of Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker.
Then, when asked if he was working to a long-term plan, he had said: "No. For me we're now talking short-term, it's obvious, but whether it's with me or someone else, it changes nothing. My successor needs foundations on which he can be successful."
That did not sound like Wenger then, nor did it following a justified 2-0 defeat to Sunderland, one which ended their trophy search for a seventh successive season. On more familiar ground he pointed an accusatory finger at injuries, notably to Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby, and before that (to a lesser extent) the state of the Stadium of Light pitch, as with San Siro, and general tiredness. That at least sounded like a manager under pressure who did not intend to leave.
"How do we go about getting better results? By playing well in the next game," he said. "Everything is focussed on that. A week ago, we won at Sunderland in the championship and that is our main target. Then we lost at Milan and then today here.
"That's basically down to the fact that we had a lot to give on Wednesday and then we had to travel again and that is difficult for any team in the world. We put a lot of spirit into this game and if we keep that spirit, and recover a little bit physically, we can win that next game.
"People are always asking the same question, but the first trophy is to finish in the top four and that is still possible for us. I believe that is vital for us, so let's focus on that."
The evidence against him, aside that natural aversion to a lack of long-term planning, was what occurred on the pitch. Arsenal were disjointed. Arsenal were no longer fluent and full of emerging talent that excited the neutral. They were jaded and sluggish and Sunderland ran all over them.
Technically, two own goals did for Wenger and his men, one from Sebastien Squillaci in the first half, deflecting a Kieran Richardson shot past Lukasz Fabianski, a second late in the game from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The defeat went deeper, and everyone (Wenger aside, or as well?) knew it.
The form curve over a period of years now lies at a direct contrast to that of Manchester City and Tottenham, the two clubs who have leapfrogged Arsenal in that time. They are not even treading water as their nearest rivals progress. Under Wenger, for the first time, they are clearly moving backwards.
Martin O'Neill is far too smart to either write off Wenger or be seen to do the same thing. "You are talking about a bright and intelligent man," he said.
"His judgment and record stands the highest scrutiny. They have qualified every year for the Champions League and he could do that again.
"He has had a disappointing week and expectations have been big, but I always say eventually you win a game or two and the pressure passes on to the next manager.
"My genuine view is he is one of the greatest managers. As time goes on, people forget what he has done. He was vying with Sir Alex Ferguson every year for the Championship not so long ago. He will come again no problem."
Some of the praise for Wenger, however, is no longer in the present. The tense used and how far a club looks ahead is crucially important here. Wenger's best days may no longer be in front of him, at least not at Arsenal, and that is a fact that will not get any easier to admit about a man who has helped shape English football, as the current season eventually draws to its close.
Sunderland: MIGNOLET 7/10; BARDSLEY 7; O'SHEA 7; TURNER 7; RICHARDSON 7; LARSSON 7; CATTERMOLE 8; GARDNER7; COLBACK 7; McCLEAN 7; SESSEGNON 8
Arsenal: FABIANSKI 6; COQUELIN n/a; VERMAELEN 6; DJOUROU 5; SAGNA 6; ARTETA 6; SONG 6; GERVINHO 5; RAMSEY 6; OXLADE-CHAMBERLAIN 6; VANPERSIE 6
Scorers: Sunderland Richardson 40, Oxlade-Chamberlain og 77.
Substitutes: Sunderland Campbell (Sessègnon, 88). Arsenal Squillaci (Coquelin, 10), Ramsey (Walcott, 53), Rosicky (Squillaci, 53).
Booked: S'land Larsson, Gardner, Cattermole. Arsenal Djourou, Sagna, Vermaelen. Man of the match Cattermole. Match rating 7/10. Poss: Sunderland 45% Arsenal 55%.
Attempts on target: Sunderland 2 Arsenal 6.
Referee H Webb (South Yorkshire). Attendance 26,042.
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