Wenger has 16 games to be right or wrong

BEING a big-picture man, I looked at the fixture list to see how many games are left. Arsenal have another 16 Premiership games.

The last one is Wigan at Highbury on May 7.

If you start with the Community Shield against Chelsea, and end with Wigan, Arsenal’s season will be 54 games.

In this piece I’ll say a few words about the first 36 games and Bolton. And then I’ll talk about the remaining 18 games and Real Madrid.

SO FAR this season has been OK as long as you don’t compare it to the nine previous seasons. It’s a transitional season where the goals have dried up.Arsenal have failed to score in 10 of those 36 games. Failing to score has become predictable and the attack kept another clean sheet at the Reebok. As soon as I saw the line-up at Bolton I knew they wouldn’t score.

In August and September they failed to score against Chelsea and West Ham and they started December by failing to score in four consecutive games : Bolton, Ajax, Newcastle, Chelsea. They ended the month with a dismal 0-0 at Aston Villa and started January with a 0-0 at home to Manchester United.

That’s seven games without a goal.Then at Wigan, Everton and Bolton they lost 1-0

Why so few goals? Two reasons.

One, personnel. The squad is thin, as always.

Two, style of play.

Without authoritative midfield players to win the ball and service the strikers, any attack will struggle.That applies to all teams and all styles of play.But since Arsenal always try to play narrow, fast-passing moves, and do not score from crosses or rebounds or second balls, they rely too much on quick pass-and-move through the middle, and down the left flank, to create one-on ones with the goalkeeper. And when they do that, keepers know where Thierry Henry places his shots, low to the keeper’s left.

Wigan keeper Mike Pollitt has been watching Henry do that for six years. He was waiting for them .

That style became stale, predictable, easy to nullify. Also, it depended entirely on Vieira, whose powerful efficiency made him the big wheel in the machine for nine years. The Arsenal team has fallen apart because the style has fallen apart and the style has fallen apart because the big wheel was removed.

Let’s be 100% clear on this. Let’s make sure we understand all three elements. (1) Vieira was sold (2) Vieira was not replaced and (3) Vieira was essential to Arsenal’s unique style of play.If he was sold, nobody could duplicate what he did, so the style of the team should have been modified. Instead, Arsenal carried on trying to play as they had done when Vieira was there !

That was crazy.

Arsene Wenger is a great coach who has given Arsenal nine great years and seven great trophies and he has revolutionised the club and changed the brand and he has only spent about £5 million a year. Nobody else on this planet could have done all that on his budget.

Being human, he has made hundreds of mistakes and his biggest mistake since buying Jeffers was selling PV4 and trying to carry on playing in the same way.

AT BOLTON, Arsene picked all his biggest and most aggressive players. Unfortunately, it was a team of strangers. The team was : Almunia; Gilbert, Djourou, Campbell, Senderos ; Hleb, Diaby,Flamini, Reyes ; van Persie and Ljungberg.

The back four had never played together and the midfield four had never played together, so the service to Ljungberg and van Persie was always going to be shabby. Robin and Freddie have played together, but not as a pair.

Clearly, Arsenal would have to compete in the first half and improve as in the second, which is exactly what happened. The armband helped Sol, who improved. Gilbert, Djourou and Diaby played well in the circumstances. coming into a struggling side.

Arsenal bullied Bolton and that was great to see. At last the team was standing up for itself !

Ever since that 2-0 defeat when Mike Riley let Man Utd kick Arsenal off the field, and Rooney dived over Campbell’s foot, I have wondered whether every Arsenal team would be bullied from now on. No Arsenal team of the past was ever bullied as Arsenal were in that game. It was sad. It was pitiful. And the long-term effect was catastrophic. That fiasco ended more than a 49-game unbeaten run. At Bolton, at long last, we did not have to watch Pires, Henry and Bergkamp jumping out of tackles every 12 seconds. Arsenal got five bookings in the match and one of them was an over-enthusiastic late challenge by Diaby, which cracked the toe of Campo.

THE GAME WAS CLOSE and could have gone either way.

Bolton are a tactical team who play percentage football. They work on diagonals and crosses and corners and long throws and knockdowns and flick-ons. While Arsenal try to play stylish rapier-football. So Bolton and Arsenal are polar opposites.

The first half was garbage. As a game of football it was rubbish. Significantly,though,Bolton did not score. The second half, with Ljungberg brought infield to play a Bergkamp role, was far better. Freddie grafted and tried to organise attacks by holding the ball and working it forward. He did some good things and the game perked up.

But the contest eventually boiled down to two incidents 72 seconds apart.

At one end, Robin van Persie went for a shot from just outside the box. He took a swing at a ball with his right foot and missed it conpletely. An air-shot which made him feel silly.

Bolton broke down to the other end with a typical attack when Kevin Davies worked the channel towards the left corner and turned the ball back to Ricardo Fuller, whose excellent whipped cross went over Sol Campbell and Stelios scored with a diving header from seven yards.

After Wigan, Arsene talked about conceding a goal they should not concede “with the experience we have in our defence.” By that he meant Sol Campbell.

By making Sol captain at Bolton he was challenging him.And it worked. Sol played well.

But Nolan made a distracting run in front of Sol and he didn’t move out to play Stelios offside as the Greek ran in to head the winner.

It was a goal against the run of play. But that’s football.

MY 54-GAME scenario assumes Arsenal will lose to Real Madrid.

Those two games are the 40th and 44th of the season.

Going out of the FA Cup means that the team will have a clear week of preparation between playing Liverpool at Anfield on Tuesday February 14 and going to the Bernabeu on Tuesday February 14.

After the Madrid game at Highbury there are 10 league games left : Liverpool, Charlton, Portsmouth, Aston Villa, Man Utd, West Brom, Man City, a six-pointer against Spurs, Sunderland, who will be already relegated and Wigan, the team of the season, in the last game at Highbury

So Arsenal will finish 4th and the future will be bright.

After Bolton, Arsene said, “We should not feel sorry for ourselves and take a lot of positives from the game. We must keep going like we did. If we keep that type of spirit then we will surprise many sides until the end of the season.”

Surprise many sides?

I think he means : From now on, we will tackle and compete. We have only won two away games and lost six, so teams know we are a soft touch away from Highbury. We are not special any more.They think that if Boro and West Brom and Newcastle can beat Arsenal, we can too.

Footballers believe results more than anything else and Arsenal’s away results are so bad that all opponents now think they have a chance. If you hustle and bully for two thirds of the game, and if you defend deep for the rest of the game, you will frustrate a team that cant score from crosses and knockdowns.

Mediocre sides who have been scared of Arsenal for eight years now go on to the pitch expecting to beat them.

BASICALLY, it’s all to play for. It’s all to play for in these 16 games.

If Arsene is right, and his youngsters are NOT bullied from now on, then they WILL finish fourth.

If he is wrong and they don’t play in the Champions League next season then 2005-2006 is a disaster.

It’s as simple as that. Fourth is success and fifth is failure.

If Arsenal finish fifth or sixth or seventh then Arsene Wenger has comprehensively mismanaged the age-balance of his squad.

Fourth is a valuable transitional season, a bold spell of development by a gambling professor obsessed with pace and youth.

But if Arsenal finish below fourth then 2005-2006 is a disaster.

That 1-0 defeat at the Reebok could signal a quantum leap.It could mark a major turning point.It could be a landmark moment of the Noughties, a day that we look back on and say : before the Reebok Arsenal could be bullied. After it, they couldn’t.

That’s it, really. That’s my Monday morning message.

It’s all to play for.

REAL MADRID beat Celta Vigo 2-1 last night but remain 12 points behind Barcelona.

They are far better since Ronaldo and Raul were injured and since Luxemburgo was sacked. Ronaldo does not run any more and football is a running game.

Robinho has found his form.

Cassano is a player for next season, yet to settle.

New coach Lopez Caro has a solid midfield : Guti & Gravesen with Beckham on the right and Zidane on the left.

Zidane is fit and playing well.

Robert Carlos is in his 10th season there.

Baptista is in the team but rarely scores.

Without Ronaldo, Madrid still have five gifted Brazilians : Carlos, Robinho, Cicinho, Baptista and Zinedine Zidinaho.

LET’S FACE IT, this season is over.

Barcelona, Juventus and Chelsea are champions, so it’s all about what Lyon can do in the Champions League and whether the winner of Barcelona-Chelsea can beat Juventus.

The rest is detail, trivia and white noise. Right?