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Kevin Garside: Champions League defeat leaves Arsène Wenger facing uncomfortable Arsenal AGM

The question is not whether Arsène Wenger is up to the job but whether he fancies it anymore. His contract is up at the end of next year.

His Arsenal team continues to evolve at glacial pace, 10 points adrift in the Premier League and last night Schalke followed Norwich into the coconut shy, administering a painful buffeting in Champions League Group B.

A tin hat is the requirement at the club's annual general meeting this morning at which Wenger can expect the now standard disapproving questions about progress following seven potless years. He will tell the critics that football is a landscape transformed since he arrived from Japan 16 years ago. Wenger was cutting edge then, a man of ideas, a forward-thinking coach whose philosophical reflections were substantiated by a new template of slick passing and deadly finishing. There were no Middle East oil magnates or Russian oligarchs with which to contend, only a belligerent Scot to throw pizzas at.

There was tolerance too, and patience. As one team faded Wenger was allowed all the time he needed to rebuild. In the age of Chelsea and now Manchester City, the Frenchman has neither the resource, nor the space in which to operate. Every set-back carries a heavier tariff, seen as evidence of decline. The defeat to Norwich represented the end of another false dawn in the league and the loss to Schalke ups the ante in Europe ahead of the return in Germany two weeks hence.

Wenger has warned that a league challenge may already be beyond Arsenal. He did not appear last night to account for this loss. Steve Bould did, talking about a lack of confidence and a flat response after the international break. There will be nothing flat about the atmosphere this morning and silence is not an option for Wenger after a thumping defeat to the third-ranked team in Germany.

Included in the Schalke line-up was a young No 10 called Lewis Holtby, whose gene pool is as much English as German courtesy of a father from Stevenage who served in Germany as a soldier. Perhaps fortunately for him, having been capped by the full Germany side last year, Holtby is not available to England. Had he been the pressure might have been intolerable.

Holtby turned 22 last month. Arsenal and England await the return of Jack Wilshere, just 16 months younger than Holtby, with a sense of unhealthy desperation. A full 90 minutes in the junior ranks on Monday precluded Wilshere's return last night. He might well appear in Schalke in a fortnight.

Holtby was the fulcrum of a well drilled, mobile Schalke attack, dovetailing dangerously alongside Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. It was the very dimension Arsenal lacked. Santi Cazorla probed skilfully, but too often there was a wide open space where a centre-forward should have been. Gervinho is not without his attributes but leading the line like Nat Lofthouse is not one of them.

As Wenger noted in his pre-match observations the Champions League is evolving quickly. Visiting teams no longer plod around happy to take a draw. They are at it from the gun. Manchester United found themselves on the early receiving end of the upwardly mobile Braga. Schalke are a notch above Braga pedigree and brought a vibrant confidence to this fixture.

Cheered on by a sizeable chunk of the Ruhr Valley population, Schalke set the tempo early and never let up. Victory at Dortmund in the Bundesliga last weekend reinforced belief, and with Roman Neustädter patrolling in front of the back four like a modern-day Franz Beckenbauer, Arsenal found the route to the 18-yard box utterly barred. As the game wore on Gervinho screamed blue murder at Aaron Ramsey for the lack of support. By then Ramsey was sucked deeper by the predatory advances of the rapid Jefferson Farfan.

Gervinho was hauled off for Olivier Giroud, another presently without goals. And within minutes the poverty of Arsenal's forward display was mocked by the speared daisy-cutter of Huntelaar. Though the finish was sharp, the conception was industrial, a couple of lumpy headers helping the ball forward. A rapier second would follow from Ibrahim Afellay to ruin Wenger's night, and in all likelihood, his morning, too.

Belfast Telegraph


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