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May 24, 2009

Keeping the faith

Only a very brave reporter could have predicted that the final month of this Premier League season would see a revolt against Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger from his own disciples.

Back in November, any scribe who even asked the question whether Wenger was the right man to lead Arsenal for the foreseeable future was shouted down as a deluded fool who was worthy of hate mail, yet the last week has seen a scenario that not even the most loyal devotee of the club's greatest manager could have foreseen.

Even though the internet message boards and radio phone-in shows may have been sprinkled with irate Arsenal fans bemoaning another season of near misses for some time, the notion that Wenger could be confronted head on with disgruntled fans questioning his judgement was not on any agenda.

Wenger admitted he was stunned by the forceful criticism of a handful of bitter souls who dismantled his philosophy at a shareholders meeting a few days ago. The Frenchman then went on record to admit his policy of promoting youth from within the club rather than signing superstar players will have failed unless success arrives quickly.

When this humble reporter made similar suggestions to those of Wenger mid-way through this season, he received angry responses from Arsenal fans who had clearly decided that dismissing the messenger was the only way of successfully defending their messiah from such 'radical' views.

The flaws in Wenger's masterplan this season have been confirmed with Arsenal finishing up a massive 18 points behind champions Manchester United, yet those who believe this football revolutionary has already been given enough time to find solutions to his teams problems are, in fact, the real fools in this story.

After 13 generally glorious years at Arsenal, Wenger has earned the right to attempt the improbable and turn his latest dream into reality. After achieving it with the brilliant Double winning season of 1998 and the majestic unbeaten league campaign of 2004, the man who has plotted these glories should be given some time to try and produce another.

Giving up on Wenger right now would be a tragic waste and his doubters may only appreciate how fortunate we have been to have him in the Premier League if he gives in to the lure of Real Madrid or any of the other major clubs take him away.

Premier League titles and cup triumphs may be fading memories right now, but the football Arsenal have produced in the last four, trophyless seasons has still been a joy to behold. Luck has been against them at times in their barren run without glory and only this term has it been clear that they have fallen a long way behind the best.

Suggesting that the philosophy of a manager who fantasises about beautiful football is flawed riles Wenger's admirers more than any other, yet this season has done little to dispel the notion that a single plan of all out attack can work so long as average teams like Stoke, Bolton and Fulham continue with their proven method of halting Arsenal in their tracks.

Clearly Wenger needs to find some adaptability in his team and solve the problem of breaking down negative opponents, but he may only need to tinker with his ideals rather than rip them to shreds and the signing of Andrei Arshavin in January was a perfect example of how he can do it.

His determination to promote exclusively from within is not working and the instant success of the Russian may well persuade him to dip his toe in the transfer market for a few more proven stars this summer.

Wenger used his programme notes for this game to reaffirm his commitment to Arsenal and offer a stout defence of their recent efforts by stating: "We are very sorry that we have not won a trophy this season, but many clubs would be proud of our record over the last four years."

The bulk of Arsenal fans at this game appeared to agree as cries of 'One Arsene Wenger' rang around the magnificent Emirates Stadium bowl before the man in the spotlight took up his familiar seat on the touchline. They were to be given additional gusto by a first half display from Arsenal that was a blast from their glorious past.

To be honest, Stoke looked as if their summer holidays started a week or so ago, but Arsenal were good enough to take a 4-1 first half lead as they ran rings around their hapless opponents from the off.

The artisans battered the assassins as a low drilled cross from Cesc Fabregas was diverted in his own net by James Beattie. Robin van Persie scored twice more before the break, with Abou Diaby also notching a rare goal as he rose highest in the box to head home Arsenal's third.

This was not an occasion when brawn would outsmart brains, but Stoke responded momentarily when Ricardo Fuller earned himself a penalty and converted from the spot. It was merely a temporary blip in the one-sided flow of a game that lost its momentum in a non-event of a second half.

Wenger's media briefing was something of a reflective event, as he gave a broad hint that his squad needed to be revamped. "The time has now come for me to analyse things and assess whether this team is good enough to win the Premier League title next season," he said.

"If I decided were are not good enough, we have to make sure we add the right type of player to the squad. The quality is here and the players are young enough, but we have to analyse everything now. We have a few weeks to do this."

Wenger then thanked the supporters who gave him their whole hearted backing in this final game of the season. "I felt appreciated today and the supporters were very warm to me," he added. "This makes me all the more determined to give them what they want next season."

Wenger would accept the offer from Real Madrid and beat a hasty retreat from his Arsenal kingdom if and when he fears he is ruining his legacy at this club, but he is a long way from having to worry about that after the passionate reception he received at the end of this game.

It would be good for the Premier League if a manager who believes in a policy of youth development and working within the natural resources of his club overcomes the cash-laced goliaths around him.

Wenger may be forced to look elsewhere to realise his dream if we are writing about more near misses in 12 months time, yet this reporter, for one, hopes those intent on undermining the Arsenal manager don't succeed in chasing him away from our shores just yet.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Robin van Persie - Wenger needs to hope he can keep this Dutchman fit for a full campaign as he has the class to light up the Premier League. However, the fear must be that he seems too delicate to survive at this level for an extended period.

FOOD WATCH: A very tasty sausage and mash was complimented by the compulsory dive into the ice cream fridge.

STOKE PRIDE: The travelling Stoke fans had a joyous day in the sun as they celebrated their side's extended stay in the top flight. The riotous celebrations after Fuller's first half penalty that made the score 3-1 against their side summed up their euphoric mood. For the record, Stoke turned in a pathetic performance in this game.

WENGER VERDICT: This did not feel like Arsene Wenger's Arsenal swansong. The show of support from his Emirates Stadium worshipers should have given him incentive to stay and finish his job, for better or worse.

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