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Dec 3, 2009

Ice-man Wenger losing his cool

The storm clouds are gathering over Arsene Wenger once again and it is not only his familiar band of critics who are beginning to sprinkle droplets of doom on his furrowed brow.

On this occasion, it is the French tactician himself who seems to be caught in a whirlwind of angst - just at the moment when his team's challenge for trophies appears to have evaporated in the space of two highly damaging weeks at the back end of November.

A furious demon has occasionally stood in for the normally unruffled and articulate Wenger when he has been on the end of painful defeats down the years, but the mood he has exuded when carrying out his media duties at Arsenal's London Colney training base over the past week has been especially dark.

Those of us who regularly attend the often jovial press briefings with Wenger have noted the disdain he is showing for all in the game to be particularly savage right now. While he is putting up a half-decent show of optimism in front of the TV cameras, his determination to unleash his annoyance on anyone and everyone has been more than evident when only the reporters' voice recorders are present.

His Champions League press briefing ahead of the Standard Liege game last week was notable for a bunch of angry expletives, while his exchanges ahead of the Chelsea game last weekend were bristling with undercurrents of venom as his annoyance over the injury to his star striker Robin van Persie appears to have consumed him.

Amid such a negative mindset, the last thing Wenger needed was the sort of hammering Chelsea handed out to his side as they romped to an emphatic 3-0 victory at Emirates Stadium, and yet he went through the process of trying to find a way of insisting the failings in his often brilliant side are merely due to an injury to Van Persie.

Okay, so Wenger has a valid point when he suggests there needs to be changes to the way international sides 'borrow' the highly paid employees of top clubs for their own needs and then toss them back a few days later, often in a very different state to the pristine condition they took them in. The fact that the Dutch FA don"t even have to pay any costs towards the injury suffered by Van Persie in a friendly match a couple of weeks back makes the situation all the more galling.

"It must be the only multi-million pound business in the world where someone says, 'I would like to take your best employees and do what I want them for a few days and if they come back broken or injured, then it's your problem to fix it'," Wenger said. "Something will happen with the top European clubs very soon and, while I'm not saying they would ever stop the players going to the World Cup, we need to modify the fixture list. At the moment, this situation is a joke."

They are words Wenger has muttered time and again down the years, but never with the degree of bitterness he has over the last fortnight as he suspects the cynics who questioned his side's qualities for this season were being won over as they glided their way towards the top of the Premier League table after a couple of early setbacks.

A narrow defeat against Sunderland three days after the recent international break was a blow that could have been overcome with a win against Chelsea on Sunday and Wenger openly admitted prior to last weekend's season defining showdown was the opportunity for his team to confirm they were contenders at last.

"We are not a team that can be considered to be young any more and the moment has come to prove we can beat a team like Chelsea," he said as he laid down the gauntlet to his troops last Friday. It meant the scene of devastation the Premier League leaders left in their wake at Emirates Stadium as they romped to victory was complete.

Even though the Arsenal boss did his best to paper over the cracks for his side's comprehensive demise, the reality was that his team lacked the physical capabilities to overcome a side oozing with the sort of strength and power only champion players possess. If it was the first time Wenger's boys had been out-muscled by a team boasting bigger and stronger athletes, he could claim this was an area that needed to be addressed, but the same problem tripped him up in last season's FA Cup semi-final against the Chelsea.

His theory that Arsenal would have given the Blues a better game if Van Persie had been fully fit is hardly sustainable when you reflect that the Dutchman started alongside the imposing Emmanuel Adebayor in that Wembley clash last April, when Wenger's boys were dumped out of the FA Cup in conclusive fashion.

The danger for Wenger must be that those desperate to support him will grow tired of hearing his well-used excuses for a team that looks less likely than ever to break their increasingly lengthy wait for a trophy. Their Carling Cup exit at Manchester City on Wednesday night was a further blow, with Wenger's refusal to shake hands with opposite number Mark Hughes after the game another sign that this football giant is losing some sense of perspective in his hour of concern.

However, it's not too late for the Arsenal boss to revive this flagging season - a couple of bold moves in the January transfer could turn the tide. Taking the plunge to sign expensive, ready-made talent has never been his preference, but he needs to roll the dice next month and sign a striker who can do a job straight away.

Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood banished the theory that Wenger was being restricted in the transfer market due to the club's precarious financial state in an interview on ESPN Soccernet a few weeks ago and, with that, only one figure could be in the firing line if the first-team squad was exposed as being under-strength.

With just the less-than-convincing Eduardo and the lightweight duo of Theo Walcott and Carlos Vela left as his striking options for the visit of Chelsea last week, Arsenal were short of a presence up front, and Wenger's suggestion that he will try to sign a forward in January confirms he agrees with that assessment.

Stoke are bringing their brand of no-nonsense football to Emirates Stadium on Saturday and all of a sudden we find ourselves at a point where another major defeat would leave Wenger vulnerable to the sort of criticism he has avoided in his 13 years at Arsenal.

The masses who are signed up to the 'In Arsene We Trust' movement will find a variety of ways to defend their messiah even if others begin to turn against him before Santa comes to town. But this was a season when the excuses had to stop and the winning needed to begin all over again.

At this moment, hearing the former seems much more likely than witnessing the latter and, for that, the moody Wenger has to take his share of the blame.

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