Arsène Wenger may be a critic of the fickle, capricious nature of modern society, but he was pleased and surprised to be Barclays Manager of the Month yesterday, despite a February that could be best described as mixed.
The murmurs of discontent which have intruded all season at Arsenal were impossible to ignore just two weeks ago. Within four days Arsenal were effectively knocked out of the Champions League by Milan, before being unambiguously expelled from the FA Cup by Sunderland. With the trophy drought guaranteed to last another season, the discord over the club's direction was louder than ever.
But everything changed last Sunday, as Arsenal overthrew a 2-0 deficit to win an astonishing north London derby 5-2. And, yesterday morning, Wenger was taken aback to find himself anointed February's finest. "It was a complete shock to me," Wenger revealed with a smile. "I could not understand that at all. If you had read the newspapers in the last two weeks, you must say there is a mistake."
So surprised was Wenger, that after weeks of mocking and mutiny he should be presented with a prize, he joked that he was not the intended recipient: "I thought they were speaking to somebody else behind me."
That all said, viewing the Premier League alone, it was a good month for Arsenal. After a goalless draw at Bolton, they won three: routing Blackburn Rovers 7-1, coming from behind to win 2-1 at Sunderland, and overturning Spurs 5-2.
Wenger knows that reproducing the emotional intensity of last Sunday will not be easy. After a difficult start, Arsenal produced their best performance for at least a year to beat their local rivals. The players, he said, should "try to put themselves in the same frame of mind again and prepare in the same way, knowing that every game is different".
Arsenal are still in fourth place, and although their opponents this lunchtime, Liverpool, won the Carling Cup last Sunday, Wenger would not happily exchange places with them. Asked whether the trophy would make a meaningful difference, Wenger doubted it. "I don't think so," he said. "I think their main target is to be in the Champions League. It can help boost their confidence a little bit, but they know as well that they are going for something different."
Liverpool are seven points behind Arsenal, though with a game in hand, in part due to faltering home form. Wenger believes that defeat today would end their hopes of a top-four finish, but was surprised that a "good side" had won only four home league games and drawn eight. "It's difficult to explain," he said, "because they always have dominance, look always a threat, and have good strikers."
With a nearly insurmountable task against Milan on Tuesday, Wenger knows that a win today is required to generate enough momentum: "For us it's important to confirm the game we played against Tottenham at Liverpool and then we can focus completely on the Champions League and have a real go."
Wenger's good mood yesterday tempered annoyance at the midweek international games. Although Thomas Vermaelen, like Robin van Persie, passed a fitness test yesterday and should play today, Wenger said he was "upset" with the "disrespectful" Belgian football association for risking Vermaelen's fitness at all in midweek. "We sent them an email, and we spoke with their doctor," Wenger said. "They forced him to report in Brussels. Once he was in Brussels they forced him to travel."
The complaint is not with international football as such, but the relatively meaningless February friendlies. "Look, if Belgium had played a qualifier I would say 'OK, what can you do? That's for the country'," Wenger said. "But they played a friendly game. To go where? They do not even go to the Euros. So it's very difficult to understand. I cannot understand that obsession, that insistence, knowing that we play our lives on Saturday and Tuesday."
Wenger said the Belgian association had "forced" Vermaelen to play, while accepting the player was anxious to keep his place. "He was pushed into that situation where he had to play," Wenger said. "He plays as well a little bit in his mind for his position, in the Belgian central defence."
Abou Diaby is available for selection, but is unlikely to start.
Curse at an end?
* Winning manager of the month used to be seen as bad luck but every winner this season has gone on to win their following game.
Aug A Ferguson (MU) bt Bolton 5-0
Sept H Redknapp (Spurs) bt Arsenal 2-1
Oct R Mancini (MC) bt Villarreal 3-0
Nov Redknapp (Spurs) bt Bolton 3-0
Dec M O'Neill (Sund) bt Man City 1-0
Jan B Rodgers (Swa) bt WBA 2-1