Wenger faces test of his beliefs

Arsenal's policy of building from within is under intense pressure after Barça match
Click to follow
The Independent Football

There is no disgrace in being beaten by a better team, but it is a more chastening experience than losing to an evenly matched one. Arsenal have convinced themselves they are the equals of Manchester United and Chelsea, despite being defeated home and away by their Premier League rivals, but as they retreated from Catalonia there was recognition that Barcelona are in a different class.

Echoing his manager, Manuel Almunia, captain in the absence of Cesc Fabregas on Tuesday, said: "We have to accept Barcelona showed great football, attacking football, and were superior to us in both legs."

That recognition brings challenges in the short- and long-term for Arsène Wenger. The immediate task is to lift his players ahead of next week's visit to White Hart Lane, the first of five remaining matches that, if won, could yet deliver the title to the Emirates. Looking further ahead the Arsenal manager must decide whether his policy of building from within, eschewing large transfer fees and wages, will ever produce a team, and squad, good enough to win the Champions League.

Given the wan performances of so many players in the last week that must seem doubtful. It is unreasonable to expect even Wenger to unearth a Lionel Messi, but a top-quality goalkeeper, more strength in central defence, a holding midfielder, and a quality striker with presence are required. The latter may soon arrive in the shape of Bordeaux's Marouane Chamakh and Wenger remains interested in defensive midfielder Felipe Melo, now of Juventus, not that the Brazilian's current performances suggest he is the answer.

Wenger would not be drawn, in the aftermath of defeat, on the possibility of changing his policy of developing players rather than buying them in. He did note, however, that "in the biggest games, exceptional players still make the difference."

In Fabregas, Robin van Persie and, perhaps, Andrei Arshavin, Wenger has exceptional players, but they were all absent on Tuesday, and even had they been fit Arsenal would have struggled to contain Messi. Recruits are required. Arsenal are yet to pay more than the £15m Arshavin cost for a player, and have only seven times broken the £10m barrier. The club and Wenger keep saying the money is there if he wants it; maybe this summer he will.

First Wenger has the north London derby to negotiate, against a resurgent Tottenham, albeit one which plays this weekend in an FA Cup semi-final while Arsenal have a rare rest. "We have to recover quickly and try to focus on the Premier League," he said. "You worry because Barcelona was a big disappointment but, over the years, White Hart Lane has been a place where we have done well."

Almunia added: "We are down, and disappointed, but we have to focus on the league. We have to show the character we have previously shown this season at difficult times. It will be a different game to Barcelona. It will be hostile but we are used to that, we've all played there. The derby is always special, whatever the positions in the table.

"At least we are fighting for the top. That is what we want, to play the last few games with possibilities. Otherwise the rest of the season would be very disappointing and boring."

Where do the Gunners go from here?

Buy a quality goalkeeper

A settled presence in goal is a must if Arsène Wenger is to end the Gunners' five-year wait for a trophy. Manuel Almunia was originally brought as cover for Jens Lehmann, but since becoming the No 1 has increasingly failed to impress. Second choice Lukasz Fabianski was found wanting against Porto in February. However, Wenger has a poor record buying keepers.

Strengthen central defence

Thomas Vermaelen aside, Arsenal's centre-halves are all the wrong side of 30 and have struggled in big games. Belgium international Vermaelen has impressed but needs a reliable partner, with younger alternatives, such as Johan Djourou and an out-of-position Alex Song, not inspiring confidence.

Find a holding midfielder

When Patrick Vieira joined Man City in January it was a reminder of what Wenger no longer has. Song may yet become the holding midfielder the club needs but a replacement should have been found earlier, with Lassana Diarra and Mathieu Flamini both allowed to slip through the net. Felipe Melo may provide the answer but Juventus will demand a hefty fee.

Lessen the reliance on Fabregas

The Spaniard has had to shoulder the burden of leading the team and scoring more than his share of goals this season and needs some help alongside him. Whenever he is absent, Arsenal appear lost without his artistry and goal threat. The consequences should Fabregas return to Barcelona do not bear thinking about.

Find a 30-goal striker

Since the departure of Thierry Henry in 2007, Arsenal have struggled to find a player capable of 30 goals a season. Emmanuel Adebayor briefly flourished before he was packed off to Manchester City, while Eduardo da Silva and Robin van Persie have both suffered repeated injury problems. Hopes may rest on the expected summer signing of Bordeaux's Marouane Chamakh, although he has not exactly been prolific in France.