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Wenger must cure Arsenal frailty

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Phil McNulty | 10:41 GMT, Monday, 3 November 2008

Arsenal's capitulation at Stoke City reinforced every stereotypical criticism aimed at Arsene Wenger and his players in these recent, relatively barren, years.

To see a group of lavishly gifted performers bundled aside so unceremoniously - and deservedly - by a Stoke side showing greater heart and stomach for the fight would have presented an unedifying spectacle for Arsenal's fans.

The mantra "Arsene Knows" has been presented as fact by those inhabiting Highbury and The Emirates on a regular basis during his wonderful reign, and to write off Arsenal's season on the basis of events at The Brittania Stadium on Saturday is premature and folly.

But if Arsene truly knows, and his track record suggests he does, then the fears of Arsenal fans who rightly revere him are valid and should be acted upon.

Wenger may be many things, myopic in matters concerning his own team and stubborn when it comes to matters of footballing principle, but he is not stupid.

He will know his Arsenal side has a very visible soft under-belly, and they will struggle to mount a serious Premier League challenge unless it is dealt with swiftly.

For all their gifts, they are frail when confronted by a physical approach. This may not please the purists, who can include Wenger in their number, but it is a fact of life and must be eradicated.

Let's start with Arsenal's positives, because they must not be ignored in the current rush to underscore their problems.

Arsenal, in full flow, are a spectacular sight, as pleasing on the eye as anything in the Premier League and arguably in Europe.

And in young men like Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott, they have players who will grace the world stage for years to come.

Wenger himself is one of the great footballing figures of the modern era. He has built a young team that perfectly fits his template of fast, attacking, passing style.

He has steadfastly stuck to those principles, refusing to lavish vast transfer fees in the market, even though Arsenal director Danny Fiszman made it clear the funds would be available.

Arsene Wenger

How can anyone fail to admire the beauty of Arsenal's game when at its best or praise Wenger for his approach and determination to play the game in its most attractive form?

This cannot, however, be used as a shield to protect Wenger from the current reality.

He is being questioned seriously about whether the principles that have built an Arsenal dynasty may actually be holding back their search for silverware.

Arsenal are only six points off the title pace-setters, so it is hardly a time to start alarm bells ringing, but this does not mean there are not glaring weaknesses that need the manager's instant attention.

If Wenger sticks to playing his long game of nurturing youngsters and making the occasion big (ish) buy, then it is hard to see them seriously challenging at the sharp end in the league and Europe, especially as it is an open secret on how you can undermine them.

There is a naivety, some might call it an unprofessionalism, about them that can occasionally put them just one step away from catastrophe.

It was almost insane that they somehow ended up drawing with a Spurs side they had comprehensively outclassed for almost all of the north London derby.

Would Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool draw a game they were leading by two goals with a minute of normal time remaining? Unlikely.

And yet Arsenal, through a combination of carelessness and basic incompetence, managed it - giving their down-trodden neighbours a leg-up in the process.

If they had beaten Spurs, as they should have done with several goals to spare, then morale would have been high and the trip to The Britannia would not have seemed daunting.

But the mood in the camp would have changed in those vital, wasteful final moments and confidence will have taken a severe dent. This made the Stoke game an accident waiting to happen.

In defeat, Wenger will have surely discovered some brutal home truths about his side and what he must do in January.

When Chelsea won at Stoke in September, they kept them in their own half and consequently reduced the threat from Tony Pulis's side from set-pieces.

Arsenal, in contrast, were flimsy and cannon fodder. It was a game that cruelly emphasised how urgently they need beefing up physically, no matter how much this drives at the heart of Wenger's carefully-held principles.

Wenger must cure what Stoke keeper Thomas Sorensen rightly described as a "lack of spine" in Arsenal's team.

Could anyone imagine that charge being levelled at great Gunners such as Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Nigel Winterburn and Patrick Vieira? It would have been right up their street.

Goalkeeper Manuel Almunia showed a lack of presence at Stoke, a reluctance to take charge in an emergency. He is vulnerable and teams will need no second invitation to test him.

In central defence, the signing of Mikael Silvestre was strange indeed. Injury-prone in his final days at Manchester United and hardly at the peak of his powers, it did not fit the usual Wenger strategy.

And surely someone at Arsenal must have smelt a rat when Sir Alex Ferguson waved him on his way to The Emirates with nothing other than his best wishes? Since when was Fergie in the business of doing favours for fierce rivals in the transfer market?

Wenger requires a dominant central defender to challenge Kolo Toure and William Gallas, especially as the latter has proved a flawed choice as captain.

And in midfield, Wenger needs to conjure up a Vieira-style figure to complement the skills of players such as Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Denilson. Not easy to find, but Arsenal need an imposing character in the heart of their team that sends out the message that they will not be messed with.

This is not a crisis for Arsenal - they could still go on to have a successful season under a manager who has proved to be a master of his craft.

But it is a time for serious assessment of their prospects and the questions rightly being posed by Arsenal fans.

They will bow to no-one in their admiration of Wenger, but they will also want their manager to work on the deficiencies in their team and literally beef up their squad in January.


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