Urbane Arsene

2008-11-15 00:00

EVERY manager or coach on the planet wants his team to play beautiful football. Every manager or coach wants to find brilliantly talented young players at bargain prices. Every manager or coach wants to develop a particular way of playing that gradually evolves into a culture associated with his name.

Everybody craves these things. So why — as 61 000 Arsenal supporters will be singing gleefully at the Emirates stadium again this afternoon – is there “on-ly one Ar-sene Wen-ger”?

The answer is brains.

Even in the world of professional football, a grubby environment populated by spivs, charlatans, opportunists and touts (and that’s only the managers and coaches), it is heartening to observe from a distance of headlines and see that, even in the sewer, the strongest currency is still intellect.

While others preen and pose, Wenger plans. While others scream and shout, Wenger thinks.

A doorstep of a book would be required to do justice to the genius from Strasbourg, born and bred in that region of eastern France where the citizens behave eerily like Germans, a man with degrees in engineering and economics, a man who speaks English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese (no wonder every major club in Europe has at one stage tried to employ him), but, in this column, one small anecdote must suffice.

At half-time of every professional football match, the players troop wearily back to their changing room for a cup of tea and a sandwich, or maybe an isotonic drink and a banana, followed by the coach with an obligatory stern face, looking as if he has something terribly important to tell his team.

This rant is usually packed with expletives (the industry sounds like a sewer too): if the team is winning, the message will boil down to “fxxxxxx fantastic, keep it up lads” or sometimes “fan-fxxxxxx-tastic, keep it up lads”; if the team is losing, it will amount to “you lot are a fxxxxxx disgrace” or, alternatively, “you lot are a dis-fxxxxxx-grace”. This is what Alex Ferguson calls the hairdryer treatment, and the lauded Manchester United manager has been known to support his red-faced tirades by kicking a boot at a player (reference: the gashed eyebrow suffered by David Beckham after a 2-0 defeat to Arsenal in February 2003).

Wenger follows a different half-time routine.

As his players head to the changing room for rest and refreshments, he walks to a smaller room with his assistant Pat Rice and first-team coach Boro Primorac. The latter, a little-known Bosnian who won 14 caps for Yugoslavia in the early 1980s and has been working alongside Wenger since March 1997, does not watch the match from the bench. Instead he walks around the “club level” at the Emirates, halfway up the stands, gaining a different, constantly changing perspective on the game.

This trio sit together and calmly, quietly discuss the first half. After 10 minutes or so Wenger joins the players in the changing room, where he makes three or four clear tactical observations — please lie deeper, push up, provide width. Then, he sends his team back out to thrill.

Last Tuesday evening in London, the so-called “Professor” rested his first XI and sent out an extraordinary Arsenal team, including no fewer than 10 teenagers, to play a Carling Cup match against Wigan at full-strength. It was, as somebody said, boys against men; and the boys won 3-0.

The “kids”, as the manager calls them, are true disciples, constantly passing and moving, displaying wonderful technique and character, cutting through more physical, older opponents.

Recruited from around the world, from Mexico, France and even from England, they embody the Wenger way.

Ah yes, you may say, but his Arsenal side have not won a major trophy for three years, and it is true that these overrated, transient baubles have largely been passed around between those clubs variously bankrolled by unshaven Russian asset-strippers and sharp-suited American entrepreneurs.

Wenger’s achievement over the past 12 seasons — to develop three successive Arsenal squads, each playing a style of football that consistently delights a global television audience of billions, to eschew big money transfers as vulgar and short-term, to develop gifted youth — is on a different level.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby, general manager of SABC sport and involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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