Thu, May 15, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Wenger feeling the pressure of soccer

THE BETTER TEAM?The Arsenal manager thinks his team deserved to take the English Premiership ahead of rivals Man United in what was a turbulent season


Tension, the occupational hazard of a football manager, reveals itself in varied ways.

Some stomp. Most shout. Many swear. A few, notably Alex Ferguson, manage all three while furiously chewing gum.

Arsene Wenger's reaction to Arsenal's traumatic last month has been to compulsively loosen his tie, although the deepening lines on an already gaunt face hint at the inner turmoil.

The north London team defend the FA Cup against Southampton at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, a consolation prize for a season which promised so much last September.

After a scintillating start, with attacking displays of breathtaking brilliance, Arsenal once again faltered in the Champions League.

They then disintegrated in the latter part of the English season to allow Ferguson's ruthless and resilient Manchester United side to reclaim the premiership title.

Wenger's displeasure after last year's heady triumphs has been palpable.

"When you look at the whole season, taking in the league and the FA Cup, we are certainly the best team in England," he said.

"United, though, found their form at just the right time in the title run-in. It was very close. Are United worthy? I don't know," he said.

The 53-year-old Frenchman's primary frustration has been his perceived lack of resources compared to Ferguson.

"I am deeply disappointed," he continued. "Do you think I fight the whole season to finish second? But finishing second is not a disaster, especially when you have only 50 percent of United's budget."

Wenger was barely known in England when he arrived at Highbury in 1996 fresh from running Nagoya Grampus Eight in the Japanese League.

His first act was to recommend signing Patrick Vieira, followed by two other Frenchmen, Emmanuel Petit and Nicolas Anelka, plus Dutchman Marc Overmaars.

Grafting on continental panache to the famously parsimonious Arsenal defense was instantly successful, leading to a celebrated premier league and FA Cup double in 1998.

Wenger, a multi-lingual economics graduate from Strasbourg University, introduced modern diet and fitness techniques to a club with an entrenched drinking culture.

He spoke in measured tones, eschewing the more excitable cliches of English managers, and transformed the previous image of a dull and boring team content to win by a single goal.

His other major achievement was to make Arsenal the only consistently credible challengers to Manchester United.

Last year's double was exquisitely satisfying for a self-confessed soccer obsessive.

But still Wenger wanted more. He tempted fate by speaking of a shift in the balance of power from north to south England. Early in the current season he speculated that Arsenal could go through the season unbeaten.

Arsenal's early form suggested they could be unstoppable, if not unbeatable. Their defensive frailties over the past month with the influential captain Vieira injured and Sol Campbell suspended make Wenger's words seem at least unwise.

There are plenty, not all from Manchester or Tottenham, who have openly rejoiced in Arsenal's eclipse.

Wenger has just become more determined, even turning down the prospect of a summer holiday.

"I don't want a break," he said. "To me it is not refreshing to take a break away from football. We dominated this league for long periods and we didn't have the defensive consistency of recent years. The priority is to come back strongly."

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