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Wenger satisfied as critics silenced

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Phil McNulty | 18:03 GMT, Saturday, 8 November 2008

Arsene Wenger's face was a study in satisfaction as he reflected on a game that was a victory for his principles as well as his football team.

Arsenal's manager has endured a troubling 10 days, with a draw against Spurs and the acrimonious aftermath of a defeat at Stoke City causing previously adoring supporters to openly question him for the first time.

But, after the Emirates reverberated to the sound of Wenger's name and Manchester United were beaten, he was able to answer his doubters in typically eloquent fashion.

Wenger sat tracksuited in the opulence of the Emirates media theatre and admitted he knew what defeat would have meant - but he drew huge pleasure from a win that meant even more.


If Manchester United had beaten Arsenal, the inquest about his methods and his team would have continued unabated, complete with questions (admittedly ludicrous ones) about whether Arsene's era had run its course.

A deserved victory in a magnificent game may not have banished all the doubts - remember Arsenal have lost to Fulham and Hull as well as Stoke this season - but Wenger was given a measure of vindication by an outstanding performance.

The Emirates was an uncertain place to be before kick-off, with Arsenal fans expressing genuine fears for their understrength team against a United side reinforced by the return of Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov.

The contrast could not have been more stark as the final whistle sounded at the end of six minutes of stoppage time and an encounter that was played in gloriously cavalier fashion.

Faith was restored in Wenger, remember the mantra "Arsene Knows", and the man himself was able to reaffirm that he had never lost faith in his players.

He said: "If players have the right quality they will always have the right answers."

Wenger's studied principles still cause heartache for some Arsenal fans, including one poor individual who parked himself alongside the press box shouting "kick it away" for the entire period of stoppage time.

They were wasted words.

Arsenal do not do "kick it away" - it was like pitching up at a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic and ordering them to play a selection of Motorhead classics.

But he and the rest of Arsenal's fans got their victory and they celebrated in a style that gave the lie to the supposed silence that occasionally falls on the Emirates.

It was highly charged occasion, with both crowd and players roused by the criticism aimed - some justified - at Arsenal and Wenger since the loss at Stoke.

Wenger rightly took the opportunity to answer those criticisms but there was never a hint of gloating and he was generous to the defeated Manchester United side.

There was no getting away from the fact that Wenger saw this as compelling evidence that he will eventually be rewarded for his refusal to bend from his purist stance.

Why shouldn't he? It was that good and Arsenal rolled out every quality that makes them such a wonderful team to watch.

At the heart of the win were two men who may be small of stature but are giants in terms of football ability. The epitome of the Wenger philosophy.

Cesc Fabregas, helped by the workhorse Abou Diaby, was the creative force, while two-goal Samir Nasri is an indentikit Wenger player.

Even William Gallas, who is not a natural captain, led by example as he helped repel United's predictable late surge.

Wenger knew his captain had been questioned and offered intriguing thoughts on leadership, saying: "I don't agree any more with people who say you need a leader. Football is so quick that you need shared leadership.

"The time when centre-backs could just talk is over because the game is too quick. You need 11 leaders and everyone can take the initiative at the right moment."

Another Wenger principle and an admirable one but surely Arsenal would have benefited from a leader at Stoke, a symbol in the mould of Chelsea's John Terry or Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard?

This was not a day when Arsenal's players needed lifting. They will come though and this is when a flaw in Wenger's theory may be uncovered.

We know Arsenal, inspired and lavishly gifted, can beat anyone on their day and even Sir Alex Ferguson can have no real complaints about defeat.

But the questions I posed in a previous blog can only be fully answered once those subdued, almost resigned, displays like those we saw at the Britannia Stadium are banished even further into the background and do not impinge on their title chances.

Manchester United, and in Ferguson they have a manager whose footballing principles are as deeply ingrained as Wenger's, came to play, to attack and were beaten.

Arsenal must cope with those contrasting fierce, physical wars of attrition that will come in the months ahead if they are to last the title course better than they have in recent years.

Wenger, however, deserves huge admiration for the way he insists his team goes about its business - although Stoke manager Tony Pulis might be keen to know his thoughts on the otherwise outstanding Gael Clichy's awful tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo.

And after the stress of recent days, Wenger had every right to bask in a success achieved in the style he enjoys, and a public confirmation of his insistence that Arsenal will challenge for the Premier League title.

United played their part in the spectacle, but there was a lack of cutting edge when it mattered - a strange charge to level at a side with Rooney, Berbatov and Ronaldo on the pitch and Carlos Tevez and Ryan Giggs arriving later.

And it will be a source of concern to Ferguson that United have visited their three main rivals - Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal - already this season and come away with only one point.

But this day belonged to Wenger, Arsenal and their supporters, who threw their full weight behind their depleted team and proved beyond question that the Emirates can generate an electric atmosphere.

This was never an Arsenal crisis but questions were rightly posed. They delivered a performance that went some way to answering them.


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