Arse­nal were 11 points adrift af­ter los­ing to Chelsea… so Wenger went to work on his play­ers

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FOOTBALL - MATT BAR­LOW

THE key for Arsene Wenger was to re­store self-be­lief in his camp. So he came out fight­ing by claim­ing Di­dier Drogba “doesn’t do a lot” and Chelsea “will still drop points”.

Less than eight weeks on and his team are top of the league. Be­lief is no longer a prob­lem.

In­side the Arse­nal dress­in­groom, they all be­lieve, and, when they talk, they talk about be­lief. It has been a strong mid­win­ter for the cult of Wenger.

“We are there and we want to win it,” said To­mas Rosicky, as ti­tle talk gripped one half of north Lon­don af­ter Wed­nes­day’s 4-2 win against Bolton.

It is a dras­tic change of heart from the Rosicky who spoke in the af­ter­math of the 3-0 de­feat at home to Chelsea on Novem­ber 29 and de­clared: “It will be very dif­fi­cult for us to win the ti­tle now.”

In fair­ness to Rosicky, he was not alone. The Gun­ners were widely writ­ten off and Wenger’s stub­born faith in his prin­ci­ples was un­der at­tack from all an­gles.

Again he had failed to ad­dress the glar­ing weak­nesses down the spine of his team, choos­ing to buy a cen­tral de­fender who was barely six foot in Thomas Ver­mae­len, which was not long af­ter pay­ing a record fee to land An­drey Ar­shavin, a slightly smaller ver­sion of the snake-hipped trick­sters he al­ready had in abun­dance.

Wenger con­tin­ues to greet the whirl of trans­fer spec­u­la­tion with a smirk, de­spite vow­ing to delve into the mar­ket for a striker this month.

Ruud van Nis­tel­rooy lacks the sub­tleties to play in this team, the French­man ex­plained. Edin Dzeko is too ex­pen­sive, Carl­ton Cole too in­jured.

Amid such in­tran­si­gence, Arse­nal looked on course to win more ac­co­lades for their beau­ti­ful foot­ball while watch­ing Chelsea and Manch­ester United bully their way to more tro­phies.

Wenger’s faith ap­peared blind, and ag­i­tated noises about his pig­headed re­fusal to spend trans­fer funds were start­ing to emerge from the in­ner con­fines of what, since the man­ager’s ap­point­ment in 1996, has nor mally been a har­mo­nious club.

Th­ese crit­ics will resur­face if it ul­ti­mately proves to be Arse­nal’s fifth sea­son in a row without sil­ver­ware when their ti­tle ri­vals have been so vul­ner­a­ble.

It’s just that from the top of the Premier League it is harder to hear them. An un­beaten run of nine games since the Chelsea de­feat has re­stored con­fi­dence that Wenger’s way can be suc­cess­ful as well as art­ful.

Be­lief is the key, from the academy star­lets, drilled each day to pass “quicker, quicker, quicker” by the rhyth­mic com­mands of their coaches.

“I’m very proud of what the play­ers have achieved,” said Wenger as he re­flected on the last cou­ple of months. “At the time, it looked a bit lu­di­crous to say we’d come back, but the play­ers played with that be­lief. We be­lieve we have a real chance.

“I’m con­vinced this team will have a real go.”

Samir Nasri has re­ferred to Wenger’s half-time fury at Liver­pool last month as a turn­ing point for the team. Some play­ers had never seen the man­ager so an­gry as when they trailed in 1-0 down.

Wenger in­sists his words were ir­rel­e­vant. In­stead he pointed to the be­lief in­stilled in the minds of his play­ers by com­ing back to win 2-1 at a place like An­field.

It had an im­pact on the games which fol­lowed.

The Gun­ners fought back from be­hind to beat West Ham in the FA Cup, they kept go­ing for an un­de­served point with a stop­page-time equaliser against Ever­ton and won from two-down against Bolton.

Where there were doubts there is now determination.

“We have to be com­pet­i­tive if we want to win this league,” said cap­tain Cesc Fabre­gas this week.

The Gun­ners are third favourites for the ti­tle in the eyes of book­mak­ers. Their flu­ent at­tack­ing style would make them pop­u­lar cham­pi­ons but the grisly expe- ri­ence and dura­bil­ity of United and Chelsea re­main valu­able com­modi­ties.

More will be known about the Arse­nal chal­lenge on Fe­bru­ary 10, by which time they will have played As­ton Villa, Manch­ester United, Chelsea and Liver­pool.

It could make or break them. But the idea of Wenger winning his first ti­tle since 2004 no longer seems quite so lu­di­crous. – Daily Mail

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