Arsene Wenger insists he expects to keep Arsenal’s best players next season despite a disappointing campaign in which their English Premier League title hopes crumbled.
The Gunners have endured a nightmare two weeks which have dashed their hopes in both the title race and the Champions League but they banished a little of the gloom with a 2-0 win over visitors Reading on Saturday.
Emmanuel Adebayor scored with a cool finish in the 30th minute and Gilberto added a deflected second eight minutes later at Emirates Stadium.
Gunners boss Wenger was thrilled at his team’s silky performance but already his focus is turning to next term and, most importantly, preventing a mass exodus from north London during the close season.
Doubt already shrouds the future of Mathieu Flamini, who has been given until the end of April to decide whether to sign a new contract, while fellow midfielders Cesc Fabregas and Alexander Hleb have also been attracting covetous glances from abroad.
Those doubts were hardly allayed by some ambiguous comments from Fabregas after his man-of-the-match display against Reading, when he suggested Arsenal’s needed to begin realising their considerable potential.
“This has been very disappointing but it is a mistake to just think that because we are young, we should think: ‘Next year, next year’. We want to do it now,” he said.
The player quickly moved to confirm he saw his long-term future at Arsenal, but Wenger did concede that changes in the transfer law — particularly the Webster Ruling, which allows players over a certain age to buy out the last years of their contracts — had made his job more difficult.
“When you see us win like we did against Reading, with so much quality, it makes it even more important to keep the squad together,” he said.
“Overall, you can see that there is a strong link in the team and enormous pride and mental strength.
“We have always kept our players together in the past and but what has been changed are the new rules which allow players to leave.
“That means you are always confronted with potential instability. Players are admired all over the world, they are tapped up, agents get nervous and they see if they can do a deal.
“Before, when you had a player under contract for five years, they were your player for five years; now, they can leave. For a club like ours, which is going for a youth team policy, this rule is very detrimental.”
Wenger might have work to do over the pre-season if his dream of bringing the league title to Emirates is to be realised, but at least there was plenty for him to admire in the Reading victory.
Arsenal were always in control and the only surprise was that they failed to win by more goals.
Strikers Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott both struck the woodwork in the second half as the hosts laid siege but in the end, Adebayor and Gilberto’s goals proved enough.
Defeat piled more misery onto Reading, who have lost form at the worst possible time.
This defeat was their third in four league games and the fourth consecutive match in which they had failed to score. The odds are now stacked against them preserving their Premier League status.
Royals manager Steve Coppell was in typically understated mood as he contemplated that doomsday scenario.
“I’m not insulated from the situation,” he insisted.
“I earn my living from results but all I can do is work hard and get the best out of the unit we have.”
Coppell was upset with his team’s “passive” reaction to Arsenal’s opening goal but he reserved his sternest criticisms for himself, and most pointedly his decision not to invest in his squad during the January transfer window.
“There was money available so it’s my fault,” he said.
“This is pretty much the same squad as the last two seasons. It was my decision to challenge them again. Because they had done so well and met the challenges, I decided not to bring anyone in.”
“Maybe I should have signed someone at the end of the January window. We always have a post-mortem at the end of the season and I’m sure lessons will be learned in that.”
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