Where did it all go wrong, Mr Wenger?
No Arsenal trophy for five years but manager says he is staying put and they are ready to spend big
It is media morning at Arsenal's training centre, nominally to discuss today's fixture, but Wigan Athletic scarcely receive a mention. All the questions are conditioned by Wednesday night's 2-1 defeat against Tottenham that effectively ended another championship challenge.
There may be four games to play, and Arsène Wenger's team will unquestionably finish higher than last season – with more points and more wins, having played some glorious football along the way – but the post mortem and inquest are already under way.
The one statistic that matters, critics insist, is that it is now five years since Arsenal won a trophy. Indeed, that should really be six, as the 2005 FA Cup final victory on penalties over a vastly superior Manchester United side was an act of burglary. Not since the "Invincibles" year of 2004, therefore, when an unbeaten side crushed the field by 11 points, have they deservedly won anything. And how to cap that?
Supporters, divided as they may be, would in the main be grateful for far smaller mercies. European success remains elusive and there can be no complaints about recent elimination by Barcelona, any more than last season's by United.
Wenger believes the Premier League is becoming harder and that one consequence is being unable to rest players the weekend before Champions' League games, as well as a tendency to suffer the weekend afterwards.
What then about a nice day out at Wembley, like Portsmouth of all clubs? Yet the manager's attitude to the two domestic cups these days halves his chances of any silverware. He remains openly contemptuous of the League Cup and although once enthused, like many foreigners, by the FA Cup, now says that Arsenal's period of dominating it (four finals and one semi-final from 2001-05) came in different circumstances: "People forget we went out early of the Champions' League [in those years] and then we were left with the championship and FA Cup. In the FA Cup this season we had injuries and ended up with a very inexperienced team [losing at Stoke]. The League Cup? Don't expect me to say 'listen, we won the League Cup, so we had a great season'. We'll never say that."
What Wenger will say is that the club as a whole "has never been in a stronger situation". Meaning what? "A new stadium, fantastic training facilities, a strong financial situation, a very young team. What can happen to the club? All the ingredients are here to be very successful and I believe we will be." Note the use of "we". Wenger's contract is up in just over 12 months but he says: "I act every day like I will spend my whole life here, knowing that can stop as well. I don't think the future of this club is only linked with me."
Those supporters desperate for new acquisitions this summer can be confident that Marouane Chamakh, the tall Bordeaux striker, will be arriving, and they will also be delighted to hear Wenger say: "We were for a while maybe not investing because we built the stadium but our financial situation is now becoming stronger and we will be capable of buying the players we need to buy. We can compete with Chelsea and Manchester United and we can overcome them."
Without injuries to key players such as Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, Arsenal might have done so, though as both those teams are clearly weaker than last season, this has been a missed opportunity.
The manager also admits of his two greatest rivals: "On wages we cannot compete. But what's not normal is their wages bill. That should not be allowed." Under Uefa's proposals for financial fair play, relating salaries to income, it will not be. But thanks to stalling by the powerful European Clubs' Association, regulations will not be fully implemented before 2015.
Even Wenger may be seeking a quiet life by then. In the meantime he must disprove the assessment of a self-confessed admirer, his former Monaco midfielder Glenn Hoddle, who said perceptively if a little sadly of Arsenal last week: "Every year, they've got a good team for the future."
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