"Arsene Knows" Nothing Is Certain For Arsenal


Watching Arsenal did not seem to agree with Arsene Wenger. Truth be told, it doesn't agree with many people these days.

The natives are restless, nervous, uncertain. So is the team. Everyone thinks Arsenal have enough to avoid defeat in Udine next week, everyone believes this will be Arsenal's 15th consecutive season of business-end Champions League football under Wenger. They just can't be sure. Not like they used to be. There is too much that can go wrong these days. Not just the big stuff, like the captain and playmaker returning to Barcelona or Samir Nasri leaving, but nuances, too.

For the last 30 minutes of a game that may well define the narrative of the season, Arsenal's left back was Carl Jenkinson. He is 19 and a promising lad, made his debut for Charlton Athletic in December and did so well in his first season that Arsenal bought him for £1m. A lot of clubs would like to have a kid like Jenkinson in their ranks. Not in the first team, though. Not in a major European competition against the fourth-best team in Italy with tens of millions riding on it. Not yet.

This is not to disregard Jenkinson, who looked no less comfortable than many in Arsenal's defensive ranks. It was not his fault that his arrival came to encapsulate the worryingly threadbare and raw appearance of this Arsenal squad. For a start, Jenkinson was in more by luck than judgement. Kieran Gibbs came off at half-time with a slight hamstring strain and Johan Djourou, his replacement, lasted less than 15 minutes before hobbling to the sidelines, too.

Enter Jenkinson, a player who, eight months ago, was turning out for Eastbourne Borough against Hayes and Yeading in front of 190 fans. And there is Arsenal's problem, in microcosm. It is not that Jenkinson is a poor player, just that no other elite club would be turning to such a raw recruit at such a crucial moment.

It is for this reason that, saved by the bar, a post, and on odd occasions goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, Arsenal travel to Italy's north-east next week with noses in front, but nothing guaranteed. The sale of Cesc Fabregas has resolved nothing. Nobody knows who is in, or out, so nobody knows what to expect from Arsenal this season. Maybe that includes Mr. Wenger.

Wenger will have his captain, Robin van Persie, back next week, but going forward is not Arsenal's problem. Udinese have a lively, counter-attacking style, led by Serie A's top goalscorer for two consecutive seasons, Antonio Di Natale, and it is likely to intensify with home advantage.

There may be trouble ahead, however improved the Arsenal team for the second leg. The fourth-minute goal from Theo Walcott served much the same purpose as the soothing mantra that "Arsene knows". It lulled the faithful into a false sense of security. For years now, fans have trod the path to the stadium, convinced of the wisdom of the manager until now, when their belief is being tested like never before.

Despite the early lead against Udinese, the Arsenal faithfuls soon began emitting well-rehearsed howls of frustration, at the inconsistency of Walcott's finishing, the shortcomings of Marouane Chamakh, the vulnerability of the defence, the errors of Alexandre Song. These frailties will be Arsenal's cross this season.

We want to think Wenger still knows because there have been so many occasions in the past when his insight and intuition has outstripped that of all in the room. We want to think his team is good enough, because so many gifted, technical players have passed through its ranks.

We want to think that, for all the hidden danger, Arsenal have the beating of Udinese, because Tottenham Hotspur overcame Serie A champions AC Milan last season, so the fourth-placed club should be markedly inferior.

And yet, nothing is certain.

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