Wenger's loyalty put to the test

The Arsenal manager, usually the staunchest defender of his players, is demanding his side start winning trophies soon. Richard Jolly reports.

Arsenal last won a trophy under Arsene Wenger in 2005.
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The best part of 14 years in England has given Arsene Wenger an understanding that the first thing our crowds insist upon is commitment. By signing a new three-year contract, the Frenchman has demonstrated his. Should he see it out, it could preclude a man previously coveted by Real Madrid and Barcelona from managing elsewhere.

More than any of his peers, Wenger has always taken the long-term view. Yet he is growing impatient, demanding trophies "now". A perfectionist's definition of silverware only incorporates the Premier League and the Champions League. For Arsenal, the stakes have just got higher. The kids are on probation, the futuristic blueprint in the final nine months of a lengthy experiment. Wenger turns 61 in October. Crammed into Anfield's antiquarian press room after Sunday's 1-1 draw, he reflected, albeit light-heartedly: "I am at an age where I do not plan decades anymore. I plan month by month."

Yet this is a man who revolutionised the English game with his progressive approach, one whose global scouting network all others have sought to emulate and the man who, in the popular imagination, could not just name the most promising 12-year-old in Burkina Faso, but sign him before anyone else was aware of his existence. Fail to meet his own high standards this season and the current crop have been warned: Wenger will dust off his chequebook.

Perhaps we all are, but he is a mass of contradictions: with a distinctly scientific bent and an artistic style of play; the idealist who is football's best businessman, financing the construction of a stadium with his ability to find and develop players; the man with a fierce will to win who has long refused to compromise his principles to prosper by other means. Tomorrow's team has long promised greatness for Wenger, the ultimate vindication of his methods. But tomorrow has remained frustratingly far away; today's team looks two players short. The draw at Anfield suggested as much. Wenger was heartened by the spirit showed and the late leveller that owed much to Marouane Chamakh's determination to put his head where it may hurt.

Yet Laurent Koscielny's dismissal and his first-half scare when it was feared he had broken his leg, highlighted the lack of cover in defence. As it is, Alex Song, part of Wenger's first-choice midfield, is likely to be in the back four against Blackpool on Saturday. Behind him, in all probability, will be the man whose misfortune is to be the two-word theory why Arsenal may not win the league: Manuel Almunia. Could the Spaniard have stopped David Ngog's goal? It may be harsh, but it is a valid question. Wenger's quest for a replacement is public knowledge, but the interest in 37-year-old Mark Schwarzer suggests a stop-gap stopper until the highly rated Wojciech Szczesny is ready to inherit the gloves. It may, in short, be more long-term thinking.

The sight of Almunia with the armband was a sign of seniority, but also of a shortage of leadership. Cesc Fabregas was absent, Robin van Persie only deemed fit for a brief cameo. Minus both, others are yet to prove they can impose themselves on the toughest games. It is not a question of ability as much as one of personality. A characteristic neatness in possession was evident at Anfield but, with Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano forming a powerful pairing, Arsenal were unable to plot a path through the centre of the pitch. And that, as everyone knows, is where they prefer to play. It took a cross to produce a goal. Chamakh's height may yet bring a new dimension while a superior goalkeeper may produce the solidity required. But while Wenger's commitment has never wavered, the past few days have suggested that, for the first time, he is questioning his faith.

There is a finality to the choice of goalkeepers. They are exempt from squad rotation; they aren't introduced after an hour in an attempt to change the result. So the biggest selection dilemma of the opening weekend was Roberto Mancini's. His preference for Joe Hart ahead of Shay Given sidelined perhaps the most consistent goalkeeper in the Premier League in the past decade. But Hart's man-of-the-match display against Tottenham Hotspur spared Manchester City defeat and justified Mancini's confidence.

Hart apart, it was not a weekend to savour for goalkeepers. The usually dependable Tim Howard and Jose Reina were culpable for costly goals. None suffered quite as much, however, as Chris Kirkland and Scott Carson. Granted the captaincy of Wigan Athletic and West Bromwich Albion respectively, they conceded a combined 10 goals. Hart's importance to the English national team is growing more apparent.

A sentimental streak is sadly absent at Stamford Bridge. For two-and-a-half hours promoted Blackpool's thrashing of Wigan meant they topped the Premier League. But Chelsea's six goals mean they have assumed a familiar place. First. sports@thenational.ae