Sombre Wenger hints that his listless squad needs changes

Arsenal 0 Blackburn Rovers 0
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The Independent Football

Arsene Wenger has come to be defined as a manager by belief in his young players. He has defended the present group to the hilt, sure that they would grow together into winners, always rejecting suggestions that he should spend some of Arsenal's resources on an upgrade.

But after this dispiriting performance, it seems that even Wenger is losing his faith, realising that the game is up for some of his squad, just as it is for their chances of beating Manchester United to the Premier League title.

In a little over a month, Arsenal have seen three avenues towards ending their six-season trophy drought closed off. The Carling Cup final was lost, they were eliminated from the FA Cup by a weakened United team, and from the Champions League by Barcelona. Now seven points adrift in the league, the title also looks beyond them, even with a game in hand and United to come to the Emirates Stadium.

The arithmetic says they could still win it, but a run of only one win in seven matches hints otherwise. Not since the first leg of the tie against Barcelona, when they came from behind to win, have Arsenal allied the spirit of champions to their undoubted abilities.

Supporters have wondered for some time whether Wenger has overestimated the qualities of some of his players. Now, perhaps, he is doing the same - certainly he did not dismiss suggestions that he had taken this group of under-achievers as far as he can.

"I don't know," he said. "I want to finish the season and then we'll see. But at the moment of course we are more concerned about the short term, to get this team to respond in a convincing way."

His sombre manner did not suggest that he will walk onto the training ground with a spring in his step this week. He was at a loss to explain a flat performance against Blackburn that was in complete contrast to United's never-say-die win at West Ham a few hours earlier.

A couple of respectable early chances were not taken, and the failure to achieve a breakthrough led to a collapse in confidence. Blackburn were allowed to dig in and took a first point in eight visits to Arsenal with relative ease in the end, despite the red card shown to Steven N'Zonzi 13 minutes from time.

"It's difficult to explain," Wenger said. "I don't think the players didn't want to play but they were just one-paced today and that's not our game. We have been shocked by what happened and that's why we need to put in even more effort. We had no change of pace, we looked very predictable and usually we are not."

It cannot have helped morale that the players knew that United had won, but although Wenger hinted that dark forces were at work in the scheduling of matches, he had to admit that winning would have nullified any perceived disadvantage.

"There are a lot of things going on that I don't want to talk about," he said. "I've been here for 15 years. I know how things work. I look to see when we play and we play on Sunday until the end of the season. But I don't want to say anything that looks like we look for an excuse for our performance today. We were not good enough."

In contrast to Wenger, the Blackburn manager, Steve Kean, who has been seen as under pressure in a winless streak of seven matches, was almost exultant. "If you give them time and space they can play any pass in the book so we have been working hard on pressing, on getting early pressure in the middle third," he said. "We were tremendous at that."

Blackburn's point was their first away from home this year, and took them only two above the relegation zone, but Kean saw it as a step on the way to a total that will bring them safety.

"I don't think it will be as much as 45 [points] , but I'm sure it will be in the 40s," he said. "We have to keep trying to chip away and keep the momentum going."

Substitutes: Arsenal Fabregas 6 (Arshavin, 58), Chamakh (Walcott, 73), Bendtner (Nasri, 78) Blackburn Roberts 7 (Santa Cruz 63), Dunn (J Jones 90).

Booked: Arsenal Song Blackburn Olsson, Salgado. Sent off: Blackburn N'Zonzi.

Man of the match Samba. Match rating 5/10.

Possession Arsenal 56% Blackburn 44%

Attempts on target Arsenal 11 Blackburn 2

Referee P Dowd (Staffs)

Attendance 60,087.