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