Steve Tongue: Wenger confident the figures will add up

Arsenal manager hopes the tiny margins will favour his men as trial in San Siro beckons
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Like his compatriot Gérard Houllier, Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger, has a reverence for statistics previously observed only in that most English of coaches, Charles Hughes, once - and how shocking it now seems - the Football Association's director of coaching.

Fortunately, the footballing philosophy of the two Frenchmen is far removed from that of the direct-play guru. Each is nevertheless particularly fond of quoting the number of shots their team have had, as if, according to a magical formula perfected by Hughes and Wing Commander Charles Reep, this should automatically equate to goals, victories and points. If only life, and football, were that simple. Instead, as Wenger was forced to observe in contemplating Tuesday evening's crucial Champions' League tie away to Internazionale: "We have had more shots, more corners, more possession, more free-kicks - and we are bottom of the group."

His argument was that over a longer period, like a domestic championship, such figures will bring their reward. "But the Champions' League is short and you have to capitalise. It's a good test of how effective you are." A test that Arsenal have so far failed, which means that if they are to improve on the continuing disappointments of eight successive European seasons, only one statistic is of any relevance on Tuesday: scoring more times than Inter.

On the astonishing evening at Highbury two months ago that the Italians ran through the home defence three times in 19 minutes, such a prospect seemed remote. That night their much-criticised coach, Hector Cuper, smiled a rare smile in the Arsenal press room, praising "an almost perfect Inter", while his president Massimo Moratti announced that the Argentinian had "gone beyond his crossroads" and was safe in his job. Well, for a month, anyway; defeat by Milan in the big local derby a couple of weeks later proved hard to take and a fortnight after that Cuper was not so much back at the crossroads, but hanging on a gibbet by the wayside, with Alberto Zaccheroni installed as his successor.

Although brightened up by the new man's more positive 3-4-3 formation, usually featuring Christian Vieri, Alvaro Recoba (both missing at Highbury) and Kily Gonzalez, Inter have still not taken a grip on the Champions' League section; unexpectedly dropping four points to Lokomotiv Moscow means that, although top, they are only three ahead of Arsenal, who could therefore be joint leaders by Wednesday morning if the Russians were to draw with Dynamo Kiev.

"Inter played very well against us," Wenger admits, "but if you look with a neutral eye, we gave them easy goals and had 20 shots at goal, and missed a penalty. The only way we can get through now is to play for a victory and we have a good chance to go through by winning there. And if they lose to us, they are in trouble. It's encouraging for us that Chelsea went to Lazio and won [4-0]. Like us, they have to play a league game three days before, and every league game is difficult in Italy."

The uncomfortable proximity of demanding domestic matches to European ties has been a bugbear to Arsenal, often used as a reason - or excuse - for disappointingly weak performances. Wenger cites two occasions last season, when his team had to face Ajax (1-1) and Roma (0-0) immediately after FA Cup ties against Manchester United at Old Trafford and Chelsea. A win in either game would have meant a place in the quarter-finals, but both held out (Roma with only 10 men) and going on to win the FA Cup clearly did not compensate for what has inevitably been regarded as another failure on the wider front.

Failure? "I accept that we are not as dominant in Europe as we want to be, but to say we're a complete failure is exaggerated," the manager insists. "We are one of the few teams to be there every year for the past five years and we are ranked number five in Europe, which is down to real results.

"And we went out by tiny margins." Tiny margins, but different reasons, which could be taken to signify that a broadly similar squad has failed every which way: unable to adapt to home games at Wembley (two wins out of six from 1998-2000); then lacking confidence away (one win in 11, 2000-02); more recently, overdependent on Thierry Henry in struggling to break teams down at Highbury, and vulnerable in defence post- Tony Adams.

To ask why any Premiership team does better in that competition than in Europe, however, invites the rather obvious retort that in the Champions' League there are no Leicesters, Boltons or Wolverhamptons. These days the weaker brethren are weeded out before the serious stuff begins. Even United, as Wenger pointed out, have been champions of Europe only once in a decade of dominating English football; and had he wanted another little dig in the direction of Old Trafford, he might have said they were a hair's-breadth from missing out altogether. Instead, he will be genuinely pleased if Sir Alex Ferguson's team and Chelsea continue to progress this week, and not just because of extra fixtures for his rivals: "If three teams go out, then everybody will say the English championship is rubbish. If Chelsea play well and do well in the Champions' League, it's fantastic."

But not quite as fantastic as three points in the San Siro.