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Aug 23, 2011

Wenger must address his new reality

"The work we do is not getting the credit it deserves because we are not winning silverware. It is unfair because I think we have more merit as a club than those who have built their teams with millions of pounds whereas Arsenal have brought in young footballers who have come here to play a certain kind of football and who have developed." Samir Nasri, in April 2010, vouched for the Arsene Wenger philosophy just as he had belatedly started to establish himself in a key role as an Arsenal player. Just 16 months later, Nasri has headed to a club whose strong foundations are built on the spending of millions. Instead of surprise at this departure, Arsenal fans are getting used to a marked lowering of ambition. Arsene Wenger has already articulated those feelings. He did it just last month, in fact. "Imagine the worst situation - we lose Fabregas and Nasri. You cannot convince people you are ambitious after that," he told reporters on the club's Malaysian tour. "You cannot pretend you are a big club. A big club holds onto its big players and gives a message out to all the other big clubs that they just cannot come in and take [players] away from you. We worked very hard with these players for years to develop them and now it's time for us to keep them together." That time has already passed. Cesc Fabregas has already won his first trophy and scored his first goal as a Barcelona player, while Nasri's move to Manchester City was eventually sped through when it became clear that his prospective club would not allow him to aid Arsenal's progress into the Champions League group stages. In both cases, bigger clubs - one primarily in terms of achievement, the other finance - have paid top dollar to reap the benefits of Wenger's development of young players, still admired throughout the game. That this can happen to Arsenal, a club which has played 13 straight seasons of Champions League and is the third-highest achiever in English football since the advent of the Premier League, hammers home that the game's elite becomes an ever more select bunch, among whom money is always key to success. Wenger now bears the look of a man who has had the rug pulled from under him. The repeated ministrations of his rain-soaked hair as his team lost to Liverpool conjured memories of McClaren and Hodgson at their lowest ebbs. His public statements have become odd. A statement a fortnight ago that he expected neither Fabregas nor Nasri to leave must now be seen as some kind of sarcastic joke, while a relaxed demeanour during an impromptu press conference at Heathrow Airport as Nasri's departure became official suggested a man who is yet to come to terms with the depth of his plight. Though in confusing denial that Wednesday's match was critical, failure at Udinese with a squad shorn of the aforementioned plus an injured Jack Wilshere looks eminently possible, and could rob Wenger of £20 million of transfer funds, as loath as he seems to spend them. Lose in Italy, and at Manchester United, and Wenger faces the greatest crisis of a reign not without its disappointments but full of successes and artistic impression. He leads a squad that needs a reliable goalkeeper to back up the promise of Wojciech Szczesny, at least one more central defender, an experienced left back, two midfielders offering variously creativity and grit, and a forward capable of filling in for the brittle Robin van Persie. Though he now has over £60 million to spend, he has eight days to do so or must then rely on a squad stretched thinly across its bare bones. Youthful promise has been the quality most associated with Arsenal since the breaking up of the 'Invincibles' of 2004, yet that promise has not been kept. Two players expected to lead through the next generation are now part of someone else's future, leaving the likes of Ignasi Miquel, Carl Jenkinson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Emmanuel Frimpong exposed as their manager seeks to rescue a season with August not yet out. While clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United have augmented their own youth products with the expensive purchase of further talent, Wenger must blood those kids alongside the rump of a group who have repeatedly failed to deliver silverware. If, as Wenger observed, losing their key players was to give up the pretence that Arsenal remain among the game's heavyweights, further failure can only diminish that status further. A big club should expect to win honours and, at the very least, finish in the top four. At present, Wenger's Arsenal look short of that capability.

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