Wenger must rebuild the wall

Silvinho and Upson raise spirits as instability shakes foundations of Arsenal's famed back line
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The Independent Online

The one characteristic which sets Arsÿne Wenger apart from other managers is his forthrightness. The Frenchman does not duck questions, nor does he ignore problems. Just as well, because there are plenty of both hanging over the Highbury camp at the moment. Kanu, Vieira, the Premiership and the Champions' League are all serious concerns for Wenger. Top of that list, however, is the case of the Arsenal defence.

The one characteristic which sets Arsÿne Wenger apart from other managers is his forthrightness. The Frenchman does not duck questions, nor does he ignore problems. Just as well, because there are plenty of both hanging over the Highbury camp at the moment. Kanu, Vieira, the Premiership and the Champions' League are all serious concerns for Wenger. Top of that list, however, is the case of the Arsenal defence.

No sooner had he stepped off the plane from Japan four years ago than Wenger was warned of the task awaiting him: "You can replace a striker or unearth a new midfielder, but you can never find another Arsenal back four," was the message. Wenger accepted the inevitable but, rather than bulldoze through the great wall of Highbury, he decided to dismantle the edifice brick by brick.

First to go was Andy Linnighan, who moved to Crystal Palace in 1997. The following summer, having helped Arsenal secure the League and Cup double, Steve Bould was released to Sunderland at the grand old age of 37. Finally, two months ago, Nigel Winterburn decided he would prefer to play first-team football at West Ham rather than stay to play second fiddle to Silvinho. And then there were three. Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Lee Dixon remain.

Wenger has been shrewd in the way he has broken up the most secure rearguard in the land without destroying the defensive instincts of the club. "I always knew my biggest test would be to find a new defence," Wenger said. "I'm not stupid - I know that finding a 25-year-old Adams or Keown, in England or even abroad, is virtually impossible. That's why the big clubs, like Internazionale with Laurent Blanc, are having to rely on older players."

Two seasons ago, the Gunners conceded the fewest goals in any Premiership season: 17 in 38 matches. So far this year, they have let in seven in the first five games. "Of course, I am worried about this situation," Wenger said. "I know that to win things you need a stable defence. At the moment I cannot really correct anything, so I'm just looking to make sure we have four defenders for each game. But that is difficult when you are having to rotate so many players. We were quite solid in pre-season, but theinjury to Tony Adams has been a big blow."

Adams was injured in Wednesday's 2-2 draw with Chelsea. Wenger added: "Happily, it looks like only a short-term problem for Tony. It is sad for him and a huge blow for us because he is such an influential player and has worked so hard to be ready for this season. But physically he is very sharp and there is still the slight possibility he might be available for the Champions' League match in Prague."

Even with Adams in the team, Arsenal are no longer entirely secure. Adams and Keown had formed such a trustworthy and effective partnership that it is difficult to believe it now looks vulnerable. But the pair were repeatedly exposed during the hard-fought 5-3 win over newly promoted Charlton and, on Wednesday, Keown was again caught out by the clever running of the Chelsea forwards.

Wenger's added dilemma is that he now also has to rework his central midfield. It was following their home defeat to Blackburn Rovers in December 1997 that the Arsenal back four called for an urgent meeting with the Frenchman and requested that they be given more protection from midfield.

The Petit-Vieira partnership was born and the Double was secured less than six months later. Having to play without one of them is difficult enough, but missing both is proving critical to Arsenal's defensivetroubles.

Petit, in particular, is greatly missed. Not only was he a master defensive midfielder, he was also a guide for the younger Vieira. Without his mentor, Vieira is not quite the same cavalier player who dares to make runs from midfield safe in the knowledge that Manu is covering him. Nor is he, you sense, quite as controllable on the pitch. Would Petit, for example, have let Vieira lose his head in successive matches?

"We miss them, yes," Wenger admitted. "And Manu will be difficult to replace. It's fair to say we probably would not have conceded as many goals if they were still playing together, but then I also don't believe our problems can be blamed on any particular defensive player. We just haven't been defending well as a unit."

Circumstances have forced Wenger's hand, and the Frenchman is now having to start the unenviable task of rebuilding a new Arsenal rearguard. Matthew Upson, the £1m purchase from Luton who promised so much in the early stages of last season before picking up a cruciate knee ligament injury last December, is on the mend. "I'm seeing the surgeon on Wednesday," he said, "and if he gives me the all-clear then I'll be back in full training by the end of the week. After that, it's just a question of getting match fit and waiting for the manager's call."

Meanwhile, Tuesday's capture of the Latvian defender Igor Stepanovs, a £1m signing from Skonto Riga, is a further welcome addition to the squad. "I have signed him because I believe in him," Wenger said of the 24-year-old.

"He has character and he is a fighter, which you need to play in England. He is tall and strong and will strengthen our defensive unit. He is also an experienced international and a very competent defender who will play an important part in this season's campaign."

Another plus is the emergence of Silvinho. The Brazilian struggled when he first arrived but now appears comfortable in the left-back slot. "It took me a full season to adjust to English football," Silvinhoadmitted. "It was a big shock when I first arrived. The game was physical and the pace was quick. It was tough. But I believe it's all in the head. I don't think I'm stronger or quicker now, I just feel more mentally in tune."

The Brazilian's new-found confidence was evident on Wednesday, when he made several forward runs. "These days, you have to be able to advance with the ball," he said. "Defending is still important but you also have to attack."

Silvinho's equaliser against Chelsea seemed to sum up what is wrong with the modern Arsenal defence: great going forward, less decisive when defending. "You cannot always win 5-3," Wenger acknowledged. "But at least we're exciting to watch now. We're more offensive-minded as a team."

Hard as it may be to believe, Arsenal could well be on the brink of adopting Manchester United's favourite policy: "We'll concede some, but we'll always score more."

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