herald

Monday 18 December 2017

John Giles: Full credit to Wenger for sticking to his Guns

IT'S a tribute to Arsene Wenger and a slice of humble pie for his critics that Arsenal sit in such an excellent position now and appear to be growing in confidence with every match.

That simple fact makes Arsenal dangerous in all competitions and the way they put Porto to the sword last night will feed the fire of debate and shorten prices in the bookmakers' shops.

On a number of occasions since the start of the season when close analysis of circumstances and results pointed to Arsenal in decline, Wenger has remained true to his belief that he has a group of players that can compete with Manchester United and Chelsea.

All the evidence pointed in the opposite direction, even if Manchester United's talent pool was weaker and Chelsea added a good manager in the close season but no new players.

In the head-to-head meetings against last season's top four, Arsenal have come off second best to all but Liverpool yet as the season enters a crucial stage, Wenger is still there preaching his message to the unbelievers and trusting his players to do the job for him.

More than that, his players seem ready for the battle ahead in a way which has been missing before.

Wenger's kids have a few more seasons in their legs now and they won't be bullied as easily as they once were. It is worth remembering that Wenger didn't have his best defender William Gallas, his top midfielder Cesc Fabregas or his top striker Robin van Persie against Porto.

Yet they shredded a team which did well to get as far as they did and could have no complaints about the result or the scoreline. After an endless series of controversies in recent games, this was a performance from Arsenal which made the officials and the opposition irrelevant.

CONFIDENCE

At different points in the season so far, Wenger has been forced to make an already thin squad stretch and while most of us looked at his best fit players and judged them capable of maybe winning a Cup, nobody expected them to be still involved in such a critical way in the Champions League and Premier League.

Arsenal thrive on confidence like no other team, and at their best play with the instinctive flair which comes from complete trust in those around you.

When they are really playing well, nobody need worry about being caught in possession and everyone is comfortable with the ball.

Add to that the explosive power of Arshavin, Nasri or Rosicky, as we saw last night, and Arsenal are devastating. I still don't know what to make of Arshavin but he's some player when he's in the humour and he's some player even when he's not, which often seems to be the case.

He destroyed Porto with three passes but treated the whole game with mild disinterest; as if he was thinking hard about something else but stopped long enough to help out with a few goals.

He's the type of player that would drive managers of all varieties mad. He offers all sorts of promise but has a maverick streak which is unpredictable at best and disruptive at worst.

He clearly has a big personality and many opinions on Arsenal, football generally and a good deal more but he can be forgiven every outburst when he turns on his talent.

Nicklas Bendtner had merely to fall over the ball twice to score after Arshavin did the hard work. Given the game Bendtner had against Burnley, his hat-trick must be acknowledged but he will never be handed an easier three chances.

There were, as ever with Arsenal, a number of stray moments which could have changed the game. Wenger can only cross his fingers and hope every time he sends his defence out.

Virtually every player at the back is prone to blunders and over-enthusiasm yet they've made it this far and proved almost everybody wrong. Of course, all the usual riders apply.

I would still fear for Arsenal because better teams will expose Wenger's defence. This has been the case in the Premier League.

But as belief grows and results continue to go so well, Wenger knows that such a comprehensive win in the Champions League will make Alex Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti shift uneasily in their seats and worry about Arsenal's apparently favourable run of fixtures.

WIDE OPEN

The Premier League is wide open and all Wenger's games against his main rivals are behind him.

In previous seasons, Arsenal have done better against the big teams but have been unable to deal with the physical challenge presented by clubs in survival mode.

Winning by such a wide margin in the Champions League can now be used to generate domestic momentum and the confidence to go out and continue to fight for points against managers who don't share his vision of how football should be played.

The result sets a standard for Manchester United and Chelsea and while I expect both clubs to be in the draw for the quarterfinals, I don't think they will make the journey as easily as Arsenal did against Porto.

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