A chill wind sweeps across London Colney. Between the mounds of earth, the car park lies still. Even the cranes and the diggers, as though mortified by the occasion, stand quiet.
There is none of the usual Friday hubbub. For the first time in the 10 years since he became Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger has cancelled his weekly press conference.
Peter Hill-Wood, Arsenal’s chairman, this week dismissed Wenger’s touchline spat with Alan Pardew as “a very minor incident”. And, had the Frenchman followed his West Ham counterpart’s lead in offering an immediate apology, it would have been. In the wider scheme of footballing misbehaviour, two grey-haired men swearing at each other and engaging in some cursory pushing and shoving amounts to little. Only Wenger’s subsequent actions have given the issue substance.
Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson are wont to react with silence to the merest perception of a slight. It is one of Wenger’s more engaging traits that he has always backed his own intelligence and charm in the face of any line of questioning. He may be unreasonable and ungracious in defeat but he has never sulked. In that context, his refusal to speak ahead of Sunday’s home game against Liverpool suggests pressure is beginning to bite.
A level of frustration last Sunday was understandable. He had, after all, just seen his side, for the third game running, fail to win a match they had dominated. And even Pardew accepts his celebrations at Marlon Harewood’s 89th-minute winner were excessive. Yet the tetchiness at the club was evident before that, with Thierry Henry using his programme notes at the CSKA Moscow game to complain about the fans’ lack of patience.
Quite why there should be such irritation is mystifying. Wenger seems closer to his goal now than he has ever been, and not just because the new stadium means that Arsenal are financially better equipped to compete. He has spoken of his ideal as the Ajax side of the early 1970s and, if their particular brand of brilliance is impractical today, Arsenal at their best are probably as close as the modern game will get.
Wenger is perhaps at times over-quixotic but he has constructed a vibrant young team capable of football of heartbreaking beauty – as against Juventus last season. The fact that the ball has not been going in the net of late should be nothing more than a blip. After all, in the three games that have provoked the exasperation – the draws against Everton and CSKA and the defeat to West Ham – Arsenal have had 61 attempts on goal.
Perhaps they do lack a natural predator and perhaps they do at times over-elaborate but, essentially, the fact that they have converted just one of those chances is nothing more than a quirk.
When Tomas Rosicky, presented with the ball three yards from an open goal, skews it sideways into the arms of a surprised and grateful goalkeeper, it is not because he cannot finish. It is because he and Arsenal are having one of those
days. They just happen to have had three of those days in a row.
The danger is that such a run could have an impact on the confidence not merely of the forwards but also of the rest of the team. But if Arsenal keep playing as well as they have been, results will inevitably arrive.
That might not be enough to win them the league this season but winning the Premiership with such a young team was always going to be a big ask. This season should be about building, consolidating, tweaking.
Yet Arsenal are only 10 points behind Manchester United and seven behind Chelsea, with a game in hand. Mourinho’s side, having lost twice this season, are not the implacable winners of past seasons, while the comparative shallowness of United’s squad suggests that they are unlikely to maintain their present standards – in the league, that is. The Carling Cup defeat to Southend this week only highlighted their
All the indications are that this will be a far more competitive season than the past three. And given how they outplayed United in beating them 1-0 at Old Trafford, Arsenal should now have the belief that they can close the gap. What they must not do is lose faith in the ability that made them challengers in the first place.