We don't need massive change, insists Wenger in defiant blast
Under-pressure Arsenal manager rules out summer spending spree or coaching reform / Frenchman will not give up on title race
His captain is grumbling, the title race is slipping away from him again and the legitimacy of Project Wenger is under fire like never before so Arsène Wenger responded yesterday as only he knows: he said he would not be changing for anybody.
There will be no major spending in the summer, he said, no change to the key policy of sticking with the young squad upon which this season's title challenge has been based and no new backroom staff if he can help it. It was a defiant message to those who say that after almost six seasons without a trophy, and another missed opportunity to close the gap on Manchester United this week, it is time Wenger changed.
As for the suggestion that the French manager has looked less than relaxed on the touchline of late, especially the 3-3 draw with Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday, there was this answer. "I cannot sit there and be placid like I'm on dope," he said. "I care about the game."
Even as one whose teenage years coincided with the 1960s, there has never been any life for Wenger other than football, something he admitted to yesterday when asked about the latest heart scare for his friend Gérard Houllier. Wenger is 61 now, contracted to Arsenal until July 2014, and with the sixth anniversary of Arsenal's last trophy fast approaching, he has come too far with this philosophy to abandon it now.
The interview given by Cesc Fabregas to a Spanish magazine this week that was initially derided as "twisted" by Wenger on Wednesday – but subsequently proved to be accurate – might have shed a light on how the dressing room regards the season but has also added to the mood of disquiet. Tomorrow Arsenal go to Bolton Wanderers by which time they will know whether United and Chelsea, who play today, have gone further ahead in the League or given Wenger's side another chance to get back into it.
Wenger said yesterday that this season's Premier League title would be won by the "most solid team mentally, not necessarily to anybody else". Needless to say he still believes that his team have the necessary resolve to do it over their last five games, despite evidence to the contrary over the last week, not to mention the season as a whole.
While it has become the norm to pour scorn on Wenger, to portray him as a man railing against the reality of Arsenal's situation, there is still something magnificently stubborn about his convictions. Asked yesterday whether, after nearly 15 years with the same coaching staff he might consider a change, Wenger said simply that he was trying to talk his 62-year-old assistant Pat Rice out of thoughts of retirement.
"If we need a change it is certainly not Pat Rice," Wenger said. "You cannot come to a conclusion this team needs a massive change. We only just lost against Barcelona with 10 men. We are 'there' but because we have not won trophies people destroy us completely. But look at the reality: if you are the second-best selling newspaper in the country you do not shut your office.
"But we live in a world where you are the second best by a little everybody says you are rubbish. It is not true. That is the modern world, but it is not the reality. So that is what I have to take into consideration.
"I feel there is always a need to improve the team but if you look at our season you cannot come to the conclusion we need a massive change. That would be completely stupid because if we had beaten Liverpool and Tottenham we would have been two points behind Manchester United and we play them at home [on 1 May]."
Whatever happens over the next four weeks, if Fabregas leaves it is hard to imagine Wenger being able to convince one of the biggest names in football to replace him – even if he wanted to. There is a chance that Samir Nasri and Gaël Clichy, both entering the last year of their contracts, could leave. The likes of Andrei Arshavin, Abou Diaby, Emmanuel Eboué, Nicklas Bendtner and Denilson all have uncertain futures.
The club is at a crossroads and those on the outside identify a chance to make major changes. But Wenger views it differently – he sees a team just a few points from fulfilling their destiny if they get the rub of the green with injuries and referees.
Yet you cannot help but think that in private some of the points made by Fabregas in that controversial interview with Don Balon – especially those about Arsenal having to make the choice whether they wanted to win trophies or develop young players – must strike a chord with Wenger.
In public he is portrayed as the conservative manager forever refusing to spend the millions that are there for the asking in the club's coffers. But is that the reality? The late Arsenal director Danny Fiszman, who died this month, would always maintain that the money was available if Wenger wanted it and the manager never contradicted him. Not publicly at least.
Back in the early part of the last decade when Arsenal decided to build the Emirates Stadium Wenger was forced to adopt a prudent approach and, having successfully negotiated potentially the most dangerous period in the club's financial history, he has found the habit difficult to kick. Yesterday he repeated the old mantra that what he finds most incredible "is that everybody is bankrupt, but the guy who doesn't spend is an idiot."
In keeping with his approach, Wenger has been linked this summer with the usual crop of young, emergent stars such as Mamadou Sakho at Paris St-Germain and Eden Hazard at Lille. By comparison Bolton's Gary Cahill, another target, likely to cost upwards of £15m, is relatively expensive. There is unlikely to be the marquee transfer-record signing.
There is no doubt that Wenger has in part become intoxicated by the notion of building a great team for virtually nothing in an era when opponents such as Chelsea and Manchester City have owners who are approaching the £1bn mark in terms of net investment in their clubs. But by the same token you can tell from the hints that Wenger drops that it is not as simple as spending millions on transfer fees and wages.
"We decided to develop our own players because we can't buy players like [Cristiano] Ronaldo," Wenger said. "He scored the winning goal the other night [for Real Madrid] but he cost £85m and we can't do that. So the way to fight against these teams is to build our own team with our philosophy and then try to make them [into players]. I feel that recently we have been a bit unlucky with injuries."
Wenger has three more seasons on his contract at Arsenal after this one and no one knows how new owner Stan Kroenke would regard two more fallow years and a manager in his mid-60s still banging the drum that his team were one season away from conquering the world.
As for Wenger, he cannot imagine a life without football. "Yes, it's true, because the longer you take a drug the more difficult it is to get rid of it." Has Houllier's recent illness changed that? "No, Houllier had an 'accident' already at Liverpool and he has chosen to come back into it. That means he knew that it was not ideal for him, and I spoke with him about that. But, we are addicted, we have addictive personalities."
In other words, what applies to others does not apply to Wenger. It has been his great strength in English football and it has also been a weakness but no one could accuse him of not having the strength to see it through.
Missed Opportunities: Where Arsenal's season went wrong
Sunderland 1-1 Arsenal
Cesc Fabregas looked to have given 10-man Arsenal victory but Darren Bent's scrambled equaliser five minutes into added time upset Arsène Wenger
Arsenal 2-3 Tottenham
With a two-goal lead at the break, Arsenal were well in control. However, second-half strikes from Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart brought the scores level before Younes Kaboul scored a late winner for Spurs
Wigan 2-2 Arsenal
Wenger's side were 2-1 up through Andrei Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner, but wasted a host of chances before 10-man Wigan levelled a bad-tempered game with nine minutes to go through a Sébastien Squillaci own goal
Newcastle 4-4 Arsenal
Cruising 4-0 up at half-time, Arsenal somehow managed to throw it away, Cheik Tioté's 87th-minute long-range strike completing the Premier League's greatest comeback
Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham
27 February, Carling Cup final
A dreadful last-minute mix-up by Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny let in Obafemi Martins to score the winner in an empty net
Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool
The Gunners looked to have snatched all three points through Robin van Persie's penalty eight minutes into added time. However, they still managed to let in Liverpool for a spot-kick, converted by Dirk Kuyt
Tottenham 3-3 Arsenal
Leading 3-1 shortly before half-time, Arsenal threw away a two-goal lead against Spurs again, Van der Vaart equalising from the spot after Szczesny brought down Aaron Lennon
Wenger's Arsenal Career
Pos: 3rd, FA: 4R, LC: 4R, Europe: n/a
Arsenal were already out of Europe by the time of Arsène Wenger's arrival from Japanese side Nagoya Grampus Eight.
Pos: 1st, FA: W, LC: SF, Uefa: 1R
Astute new signings, including £500,000 Nicolas Anelka, helped win a League and Cup Double in Wenger's first full season.
Pos: 2nd, FA: SF, LC: 4R, CL: Group Stage
Missed out on the title by a point and did not impress in the Champions League.
Pos: 2nd, FA: 4R, LC: 4R, CL: Group Stage
Second to a Treble-winning Manchester United and disappointed in all the cups.
Pos: 2nd FA: F, LC: 3R, CL: QF
Runners-up in League and lost FA Cup final after a late Michael Owen double.
Pos: 1st FA: W, LC: 5R, CL: Second group
Double-winning season. Unbeaten away in the League and scored in every game.
Pos: 2nd FA: W, LC: 3R, CL: Second group
A second consecutive FA Cup for Wenger, but they fell just short in the League.
Pos: 1st FA: SF, LC: SF, CL: QF
"The Invincibles" went the whole league season unbeaten but failed to convert this form to the cups.
Pos: 2nd FA: W, LC: QF, CL: Last 16
Won the FA Cup on penalties but could not topple Roman Abramovich's Chelsea.
Pos: 4th FA: 4R, LC: SF, CL: F
Departure of captain Patrick Vieira resulted in disappointing league finish. Spirited run to Champions League final.
Pos: 4th FA: 5R, LC: F, CL: Last 16
Disappointing season included defeat to Chelsea in League Cup final and a summer exit for Thierry Henry.
Pos: 3rd FA: 5R, LC: SF, CL: QF
Led League by five points in February before capitulating on all fronts, including Champions League exit to Liverpool.
Pos: 4th FA: SF, LC: 5R, CL: SF
Finished 18 points adrift of champions Manchester United, who also dumped them out of the Champions League.
Pos: 3rd FA: 4R, LC: 5R, CL: QF
Signs of improvement from a new-look side but too many league draws and a Lionel Messi-masterclass meant they finished empty-handed for fifth season in a row. Wenger extended contract to 2014.
Michael Butler and Michael Lynch
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