The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The dark side of Wenger’s wards
- The name Arsenal is synonymous with bad sportsmanship

London: On the positive side are the Doubles, the League championships, the FA Cup victories and the capability of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal to play some of the most sublime football seen in England for a generation.

There is the brilliance of Thierry Henry in front of goal — on his day one of the most exciting strikers in the world. There are the surging runs of Freddie Ljungberg, there is still a delicate side of Dennis Bergkamp’s game when he’s not sitting on the bench.

There is the innovative insight of the professorial Wenger, although his lines of sight to controversial incidents involving his players on the pitch always seem to be blocked by some obstacle or other when he is questioned about them afterwards.

There are architecturally-listed stands and marble halls at Highbury and all the right Establishment connections. They like to think they have real class in the red-and-white half of north London.

But there is a darker and more negative side to Wenger’s Arsenal, which reared its ugly head again at Old Trafford at the end of Sunday’s goalless Premier League match against Manchester United.

Half the Arsenal team physically assaulted, cajoled and harangued United striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy on two counts: for being involved in the incident that saw Arsenal skipper Patrick Vieira sent off — and for then missing a stoppage time penalty.

All the worst aspects of Arsenal’s Jekyll-and-Hyde character were suddenly exposed. For all the skills and off-the-ball running, for all the quick passing movement and solid defending, there is another side to this Arsenal team — and it could possibly cost them the League title this season.

Damn statistics

Arsenal are not a dirty team. Don Revie’s Leeds of the 1960s and 1970s were a dirty team. But the north London club are an ill-disciplined team, which is Wenger’s weakness.

Sometimes statistics lie. These don’t. Vieira’s dismissal on Sunday was the ninth of his Arsenal career and the 52nd red card since Wenger arrived at Highbury seven years ago. In the same period 21 Manchester United players have seen red.

In the last two seasons and the first six weeks of this one, 20 Arsenal players have been sent off. Manchester United have had two dismissals in the same period.

Arsenal players have missed 148 matches through suspension and have paid £150,000 in fines. Based on their previous record and judging by previous punishments in the past, the six Arsenal players cited by the FA on Wednesday — Martin Keown, Ashley Cole, Lauren, Ray Parlour, Jens Lehmann and Vieira, could be suspended for a total of 25 matches.

The club too is charged with misconduct.

But the suspensions could be even more. Defender Sol Campbell still faces a violent behaviour charge for a kick at Manchester United’s Eric Djemba Djemba in the Community Shield in August. If he gets himself banned for that incident the total number of accumulated suspensions could reach 30 matches.

United have not escaped possible punishment for Sunday’s fracas either with Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo also facing charges of improper conduct and Phil Neville warned about his future conduct.

But there has been a dramatic decline in United’s disciplinary problems. Their manager Alex Ferguson, no stranger to the odd controversy himself, has improved the behaviour of his players. The once volcanic Roy Keane, for one, was acting as a peacemaker on Sunday.

Wenger, though, appears blind to Arsenal’s disciplinary shortcomings. His failure to criticise a sending-off are legendary. He claims in post-match interviews not to have seen controversial incidents.

On Thursday, Wenger apologised for his players’ behaviour at Old Trafford — then blamed the media for blowing the incident out of all proportion.

There is no doubt that Wenger is a superb motivator and one of the most intelligent and talented coaches in the game.

But incidents like Sunday’s at Old Trafford tarnish all he has achieved. The Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood admitted his players had been “stupid” on Sunday.

The Arsenal board knows that everything their club has achieved in the last seven years is down to Wenger.

But this success has come at a price. The name of Arsenal is today synonymous with success and bad sportsmanship. Arsenal should be above that. After all, Arsenal, marble halls and Old Etonian roots, ought to be pure class. (Reuters)

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