Hleb stands out in midfield but Wenger needs reinforcements

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The Independent Football

Certainly as he looked mournfully towards his substitutes bench in the wake of Didier Drogba's fortuitous winner at Stamford Bridge yesterday there was genuine concern from Wenger at the options before him, although behind his back, out on the pitch, there was some consolation in a first league defeat by Chelsea in a decade and the first psychological setback of the season.

Wenger has been the lone voice in the homage to history this week, insisting, as any self-respecting manager with an eye on the title would, that this is not a time for reflection. With the impetus of rebuilding in mind, therefore, he selected Stamford Bridge as the venue to officially unveil the one summer signing upon whom much of Arsenal's hopes rest this season, Alexander Hleb.

Life after Patrick, as Arsenal's end-of-season DVD will surely be titled, began with two starts on the bench for the £8m capture from Stuttgart, the Community Shield defeat by Chelsea and last weekend's victory over 10-man Newcastle. Allowing a new foreign arrival to sample the particular demands of the Premiership from the sidelines is nothing new, though there was an understated sense of occasion in Wenger's decision to give him his first start.

Hleb is the only addition to the squad which finished second last season, and then lost its captain, who is guaranteed to make an immediate impression on the starting XI this term, though he is no direct replacement for Vieira. Instead, he is a work-in-progress, beginning on the left yesterday without showing the inclination or attributes to remain there.

In his speed of thought, his instinctive nature to turn on to the offensive, his touch and delivery, the 24-year-old possesses all the hallmarks of a Wenger midfielder, although his tendency to float towards the centre and seek Thierry Henry with almost every turn suggests he will become more the long-term successor to Dennis Bergkamp than to Vieira.

Hleb was the one stand-out performer in Arsenal's midfield yesterday. It was the visitors' defence and inability to respond to unforeseen setbacks, a problem that persisted with Vieira in the side, that was their greatest flaw.

The Belarussian's Arsenal career has begun amid pressure and expectation not of his own making, a consequence of the lack of other big signings by Wenger, and though new to Highbury life he will not be alone in wishing for reinforcements.

Both Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson claim to be unperturbed by the strength of the champions, with the United manager preferring his Sunday lunch to a contest he insisted would have no direct bearing on the title race. Yet in the 59th minute, when Jose Mourinho responded to the first suggestion of Arsenal supremacy by bringing into play £46m worth of talent in Michael Essien and Shaun Wright-Phillips, you could almost hear his rivals weep.

Hleb alone will not hasten Arsenal's return to the peak. Chelsea spent as much on a left-back, the outstanding Asier Del Horno, as Arsenal have on more expressive talent and though Wright-Phillips chose to sing "Ordinary People" by John Legend to his new team-mates as part of his traditional welcome, it is clear he has joined extraordinary company.