From invincible to vulnerable

When Arsenal went to Old Trafford a year ago this weekend, they were the champions, League leaders and unbeaten for a record-breaking 49 games... Defeat that day was the catalyst for a spectacular fall, which has seen them beaten three times already this season, including by relegation-threatened West Bromwich Jason Burt explains the reasons behind the dramatic downfall of Arsène Wenger's 'Invincibles'
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Everyone who heard him remarked upon it. Wenger was in a good mood, as he was at the Amsterdam Tournament a couple of weeks later, looking forward to the challenges ahead. They seemed the words of a confident, playful man. Now, barely two months on, those words seem strangely prophetic.

Today, at Highbury, Wenger's Arsenal face a vibrant Manchester City having suffered three Premiership defeats already and finding themselves 14 points behind Chelsea, the reigning champions. Wenger accepts that he and his side are now considered more vulnerable than at any time during his eight-year reign at Highbury, declaring that last Saturday's defeat to West Bromwich Albion was all the more damaging, "because we raised a lot of questions" about the strength of his squad.

Wenger will be presented with a cake today, his 56th birthday, but on Monday there's another anniversary, one he is less likely to celebrate. It will then be exactly a year since Arsenal went to Old Trafford and their 49-match unbeaten Premiership run came to a halt, with Wenger wailing that his players had been "kicked off the pitch".

Yesterday, when asked to reflect upon that defining moment, he was understandably defiant. "I feel that the defeats you never get out of your system, but you go with what is in front of you," he said.

What is in front of him is, of course, the crux of the matter. Over the years Wenger has established a justifiable reputation for spotting, then developing, outstanding footballers. But with Patrick Vieria now in Italy, and Thierry Henry frequently injured, his sides of late have looked rather ordinary.

On Thursday, at the club's annual general meeting at Highbury, Wenger rose to speak. As ever he was given an enthusiastic reception. But, even amid the environment of sanitised, written questions there was an insightful admission from the manager. Wenger admitted that he had tried to anticipate the effect of the new £357m Emirates Stadium, to which the club will move next season, believing the finances would not be available for him to invest in the team. It was the first time that anyone at Arsenal had admitted as much - the club's managing director Keith Edelman has continually claimed that sufficient funds are available and there is no need to reduce the wage bill.

But Wenger elaborated. His concern meant that greater emphasis was put on the younger players in his squad. As a result the balance was not right. Half were in their early twenties, half were closer to 30 or over. In the vital 24-to-28 age range the squad were unbalanced. "We have a young squad," Wenger later said. "Fifty per cent is 20. We are more in a situation where, when we have our experience with us, we are as strong as anybody and we will show that this season."

He tried to address the problem in the summer, having sold Vieira to Juventus for £13m.But all his efforts focused on trying to secure Julio Baptista from Seville when it was plain to anyone who investigated the story that the Brazilian was always going to stay in Spain to be eligible for a new passport. He joined Real Madrid. Wenger, always notoriously fussy in the transfer market, believed he could muddle through.

At the AGM Wenger was also asked the perennial question: why are there so few English players in his squad? The issue had arisen earlier in the week when Wenger looked uncomfortable when asked about comments from Graham Stack. The goalkeeper, whose loan to Reading will be made permanent in January, said the "cliques" at the club "are not rumours. It's a fact".

It is a familiar complaint - indeed, the most revealing comment by Stack was that he was merely relaying what his friend Ashley Cole had again told him - with players such as David Bentley and Jermaine Pennant also feeling they were frozen out partly because of nationality.

Wenger reacted with irritation to Stack's interview. "It is a very unfair and unjustified comment and I don't really know what you understand by cliques," he said. "If cliques are people sitting together at the same table, I must say we have had that just as you will find at any other club. You will find it at Chelsea as well."

But the perception has continued and Wenger was forced to admit that he had missed out on a trio of young English players - Jermain Defoe, Paul Robinson and, in particular, Michael Carrick - who have all gone to Spurs. They all fitted the age profile he lacks, and they were all available for modest fees. "At the time it was 50-50," Wenger said yesterday, when asked why he didn't sign any of them. "We feel Defoe would not play at that time because of the competition up front. And Carrick as well. We had Edu, Vieira, Gilberto, Fabregas and Flamini. Why buy another midfielder? I like Carrick personally."

So much so that Wenger is understood to have reacted with horror at Carrick's move to White Hart Lane, knowing he would never be able to sign him subsequently. With Cole almost certain to leave after next summer's World Cup and Sol Campbell ageing, there is a real chance that there will be no English players in Arsenal's first-team squad.

Of even greater concern to most Arsenal fans, though, is the future of Thierry Henry, who insists he will not decide his own future next summer. He wants to wait and see how the season progresses. There is also some suggestion that if Arsenal make some big signings, perhaps in the January transfer window, he will stay, but despite some positive mood music yesterday, the signs from those around his camp last week were that he would indeed leave for Barcelona.

"Of course you can say we are scared that we can lose him, yes, I cannot say no," Wenger admitted yesterday. "But even if he signs a new contract tomorrow, he can leave at the end of the season. Who can stop him? There is no problem with him talking about his contract in May and June. The only problem I have with that is that it will give me difficult press conferences until the end of the season."

Henry might have gone last summer. In June the Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein met Barcelona's president Joan Laporta and the subject of Henry is believed to have been raised. Henry stayed, but is now believed to be extremely upset about Vieira's departure.

The need to retain Henry grows. but Wenger was forced to admit yesterday that, with the striker's contract due to run out in 2007, "it is not down to the fans nor the journalists to decide when he wants to sign. I can understand the worry of the fans. I'm a fan as well, but I cannot decide when Thierry signs his contract. I have to respect him. We have to do that. What can I do put him in here, hang him up and say he has to sign?"

This was always going to be a transitional year for Arsenal, because of the move to the new stadium. But it may transform into something more terminal. Before the Champions' League victory against Sparta Prague, Wenger admitted that "at the moment, yes", Arsenal had lost something of their aura and that it had been transferred to Stamford Bridge. "Because, when you are on a run, things go for you and the confidence has grown in their camp and the respect that other teams show against them has grown," he said, when reminded that Chelsea have now registered 38 Premiership matches unbeaten. "That is the similarity because of the length of the run," Wenger added. His team, it seems, had learnt to cope with everything but defeat.

The Roman Abramovich effect, and its impact on Arsenal, cannot be overestimated as it upset the carefully balanced ecosystem that Wenger had constructed to cope with running a successful club who were also building their ambitious stadium. Suddenly his ability to budget has become redundant and his boast, when facing the first flush of Chelsea spending two years ago, that there were only so many players they could buy has suddenly itself become an idle comment desperately lacking in prescience.

With net debt of £153.3m and cash reserves of £63.1m, this season was always going to be a balancing act for Arsenal. The club need a squad of sufficient quality to ensure Champions' League football next season - but it also has a carefully arranged schedule of construction and debt repayments to adhere to.

Also, earlier this year, the House of Lords forced Arsenal to pay more than four times as much tax in 2004 as in 2003 because they had exploited a loophole. The club's accounts, released in September, showed that the tax charge was £11m with the Inland Revenue clawing back the money. The ruling, of course, also has a bearing on future contracts and the squeeze is being felt at present. It is perhaps no coincidence that the club found it easier to reach agreement with the lower-earning teenagers Philippe Senderos and Cesc Fabregas over long-term deals while Henry has prevaricated.

At the same time the new stadium is predicated on a minimum of 40,000 fans every week and on regular Champions' League participation.

Wenger remains hopeful and, despite perhaps being guilty of assuming that Henry would stay and presiding over a slightly unbalanced squad, few really doubt his capacity to turn things round, especially when his injury list is shortened and the club occupy their new stadium.

"Next season you will see a big change again," said Ray Parlour, who spent 13 seasons at Highbury before joining Middlesbrough. "Arsène Wenger is a fantastic manager - he knows what he is doing and I'm sure he has got a plan." However, he added: "Arsenal are going through a transition period. They got rid of Patrick Vieira and haven't really replaced him. This year might be a case of just getting through the season, but the next campaign might be a big year for the club." That may well have to be the case, but a more aggressive recruitment policy is undoubtedly required.

"It's a very exciting time because we are questioned about the quality of the team we have now," Wenger added yesterday. "That's when we can see how strong we are because I feel we have a squad that is as strong as the undefeated team. But it is down to us to show it."

His defiance is understandable as well as admirable and Wenger has also taken to pointing out that fewer Premiership games have been played so far this season than is usually the case. His argument is that there is a long way to go but deciphering his statements also reveals that he does not believe Chelsea can be caught this season.

Going back to that day a year ago, the day of the soup, sandwiches and pizza-throwing at Old Trafford, Arsenal seemed to have mislaid their self-belief. It appears they still have not found it and in the intervening months the tabloid-anointed "Invincibles" - never, to be fair, Wenger's preferred description - have been usurped by Chelsea as the one-club élite in the land.

Arsenal have always had their own demons. For all their beautiful football an inability to win back-to-back championships, and their inferiority complex in Europe, have undermined any claim to be a great team. Maybe it is time for Wenger to build again. The question is: can he do it or is he raging against a dying light?