at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
London - After 48 hours in which Arsene Wenger’s management has been debated and dissected like almost no other, it was the Frenchman’s turn to go on the attack on Monday.
As Arsenal travelled to Greece ahead of their final Champions League group game against Olympiacos, Wenger claimed “it is fashionable to be against Arsenal - a club in “fantastic shape”.
There was further contempt for pundits who dared to suggest Saturday’s humbling 2-0 home defeat by Swansea was solely because Arsenal players were tired.
Everton midfielder Phil Neville, for instance, pointed out on Match of the Day that Arsenal were not the only team to play three games in a week. But these comments were dismissed by the Arsenal boss as ‘superficial analysis’ as he suggested “people don’t understand tiredness very well in England”.
“At the moment it is fashionable to be against Arsenal,” said Wenger. “So, every single word you say, people turn it against you. It doesn’t stop me saying what I truly believe in.
“I felt we lacked a bit of freshness (against Swansea) but it was not deep fatigue. People don’t understand tiredness very well in England. They think you can only be tired at the end of the season.
“It’s a lack of freshness, which you recover with one, two or three days” rest. It’s not the only explanation for our defeat. We were a bit naïve on the day. Superficial analysis thinks to turn it against you when it suits you.
“This club are in fantastic shape. We have a good team, we have a strong structure that we have built over the years, we are in a strong financial situation and we are mentally strong.
“I can understand that not everybody is pleased about that, but that is a fact. That’s why we have to continue to behave like we do.”
Defending Arsenal’s ethos is a Wenger tactic as familiar as the club’s almost annual December trip to Piraeus, where they have faced Olympiacos three times in the last four seasons in their final Champions League group game. Arsenal have lost both their two previous games.
Qualification for the knockout stages is, once again, already assured, although tonight’s result will determine whether Arsenal finish first or second in Group B. But this year it feels different. There is more at stake than seeing if they can avoid their almost inevitable clash against Barcelona in the last 16, hence the manager’s decision to leave at least 10 senior first-team players - including Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Lukas Podolski - in London.
Try as Wenger might to insist the reaction to Saturday’s 2-0 defeat by Swansea was “dramatic”; that fans and the media are going “overboard”, the Premier League table is a sobering sight: Arsenal are 10th, with 21 points from 15 games.
Does that really constitute “fantastic shape”? The Arsenal manager’s claim that he would not swap his club’s position for Manchester City’s, second in the league but heading out of the Champions League, sounded less than genuine.
“There’s a problem, of course,” said Wenger. “What is important when you have a problem is to do something about it. The second thing is the strength to do something about it and I’m confident we have both.
“Let’s not go overboard. I believe what is important is to improve the way we play and keep faith in our players. At the moment, that is very important to me. If you look at people’s reaction, everything is dramatic.
“I would not swap places with Manchester City. We have 23 games to come back on them in the league, but in the Champions League you’re in or you’re out.
“I don’t believe I am the king of the world when it does go well, nor that I’m the worst manager in the world when it doesn’t go well.
“The real world is to take things in the right way - care about what you do and I really do, and about this club - but not go overboard.
“We lost the game on Saturday, and no matter what happens, Arsenal will lose games again and Arsenal will win games again. It’s like that in every single club.”
But it helps if that club really are in ‘fantastic shape’.
Arsenal have already reached the last 16 but need to win against Olympiacos tonight to stand any chance of finishing first in Group B.
Even if Arsene Wenger’s side secure a victory, top spot is not a certainty as they will then be relying on Montpellier doing them a favour and taking at least a point from their game with table-toppers Schalke.