Wenger defensive as Henry misses out

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The Independent Football

Just when he thought it could not get any worse, Arsène Wenger learned yesterday that he would be without his captain Thierry Henry for today's north London derby against Tottenham. But the Arsenal manager said that the crisis currently engulfing his team's Premiership season had not made him consider for a moment the philosophy that has underpinned his 10 years at the club.

Not the injuries to Henry, William Gallas and now Mathieu Flamini and certainly not the criticisms of his predecessor George Graham who said this week that Wenger has lost "seven world-class players in a few short months". But despite an uncharacteristically erratic team selection - Alexandre Song and Justin Hoyte played in the defeat to Fulham - Wenger invited his critics to remember his record at Arsenal and trust in him.

"It doesn't annoy me, I am not a beginner, I know when you don't win a game or two people have their opinion," he said. "I don't even take it in the wrong way. I can understand. I know where I am going and I will do it my way.

"If I look at the number of titles Arsenal have won in their history, not many have done better than I have done. We have shown great consistency and with the resources we have, and some other clubs have, it is not something to be ashamed of. Some clubs have spent much more money and are far behind us in the last few seasons."

Three consecutive Premiership defeats would constitute a serious embarrassment, especially against Tottenham who have not beaten their rivals for seven years, or beaten them away from White Hart Lane since 1993. Arsenal had a similar wobble in February with an FA Cup defeat to Bolton and the subsequent midweek Premiership loss to West Ham at Highbury although the following month they beat Liverpool, Real Madrid and Juventus.

How is it different this time? There are strong hints that younger players are dissatisfied with the hierarchy of senior players although no one has articulated it as strongly as Ashley Cole did in his autobiography - and he is not a player whose opinion counts for much in N7 these days. However, Wenger defended his players against the charge that there is no natural leader in his team.

"They will grow into leaders - Kolo Touré, Cesc Fabregas, Johann Djourou," Wenger said. "I tell you they will be leaders but you have to give them a little bit of time. I feel when this team has confidence and belief they will be irresistible, like they have been already.

"When we lost Ashley Cole we knew we lost a guy with a lot of experience at the back and the only way we could compensate was to get Gallas in but he's injured. I have said many times, I accept the opinion of everybody but we will not move in January. Not one player will come in and we will develop this team, which I think has top quality."

In April last season, Wenger squared up to Martin Jol on the touchline after the Tottenham players failed to put the ball out of play when Arsenal players were injured in the build-up to a goal and subsequently called the Dutchman a "liar" for his version of events. Reminded of that incident yesterday, Wenger said that today it would be about the players. "I've had no contact with him since last season," he said. "I think Martin Jol and myself is of very small importance."

Wenger was defensive of Song - described on Wednesday night as a "fish up a tree" by Paul Merson - and said that an 18-year-old should not be judged so quickly. Without their famous captain, today is surely the ideal moment to set their manager's mind at rest - or risk drifting even further off the Premiership pace. But did his more senior players need to take responsibility too?

"They do and they are," Wenger said. "Freddie Ljungberg will play, he's a winner and a leader. This team has plenty of resources. Don't forget we went to Manchester United with our backs to the wall and won; we played Liverpool with our backs to the wall and won. This team has plenty of character and quality."

How to beat Arsenal: A beginners' guide

1 PERFECT YOUR CORNERS (especially the near-post ones) Ever since Aston Villa's Olof Mellberg scored the first goal at the Emirates on the opening day of the season, Arsenal have been vulnerable at corners, particularly the near-post variety. Everton's Tim Cahill has done the same and Bolton's Abdoulaye Faye and Fulham's Brian McBride have both scored from near-post headers in wins over Arsenal in the last seven days.

2 GET AN EARLY GOAL Arsenal have fallen behind in the first half in six of their 11 home games, recovering to draw four times and win twice. Arsenal have won all four games where they have scored first, keeping a clean sheet every time. When they have fallen behind in the Premiership this season they have only ever come back to draw.

'Unfortunately, we always concede and have to fight against 10 men defending,' Jens Lehmann noted after Arsenal's 3-1 defeat of Hamburg on 21 November.

3 PLAY 4-5-1 A vital tactic for an opposing team to employ is to flood the midfield, to stop them getting their passing game in motion and play a quick striker. Recent goals by Nicolas Anelka and Tomasz Radzinski have exposed Arsenal's own frailties when counter-attacked. The extra defenders will also deny room for Arsenal's passing game and lessen the chances of them counter-attacking, which is where they excel. 'We scored a great goal on the break and then it was a case of defence against attack but sometimes you have to do that at places like this,' said Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate after getting a 1-1 draw in September.

The trend was set in that season opener against Villa. 'O'Neill's 4-3-3 had become 4-5-1, then 4-6-0 with even Juan Pablo Angel defending, by the time Arsenal broke through,' noted our own Glenn Moore.

4 WATCH OUT FOR THEIR FREE-KICKS Even on days when they have struggled in open play, Arsenal have remained lethal at free-kicks. Thierry Henry, who will be missing today, earned a point against Newcastle with a beauty, but if anything the dead-ball accuracy of Robin van Persie (left) has been even more impressive, and defenders should be wary of conceding fouls just outside their penalty area.