A graduate of the global game

UEFA CUP: Gunners' new recruit has watching brief as Newcastle are the only English side not facing uphill task in second legs; Glenn Moore says Arsenal's new manager will already know all about his Highbury squad
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The Independent Online
It is a measure of the insularity of the English game that when Arsene Wenger's name emerged as Arsenal's favoured candidate for their vacant manager's job many supporters were asking: "Arsene who?"

There is no such ignorance in Europe. When George Weah was presented with the Fifa World Footballer of the Year award in Milan in January, he insisted Wenger take the stand with him. In front of football's glitterati, he then handed his award to Wenger, declaring: "Arsene Wenger made me not just the player I am today, but also the man I am."

Weah's tribute is echoed by Glenn Hoddle who said upon taking office as England coach: "If I had not gone to Monaco and worked with Arsene, I would not be here today. Working with him inspired me to go into management."

The 47-year-old Frenchman met the Arsenal players for the first time yesterday before flying to Cologne with them today. He will be an interested observer, rather than the manager, during tomorrow's Uefa Cup second round second leg tie with Borussia Monchengladbach, in which Arsenal trail 3- 2 after the first leg at Highbury. He will then return to Japan, for one last match as coach of Nagoya Grampus Eight, before formally taking over at Highbury on Monday.

Yesterday he was predictably diplomatic about his first impressions of the players, reiterating his weekend comments that Arsenal were not a club in crisis. "I talked to the players for a few minutes before training today and they seemed just, well, happy," he said. "It was very positive and we will talk much more when I come back next week. But it is already clear to me they are strong and confident and enjoy being together at training.

"That is good because it is the things people do which matter - not what is said. We are not lawyers, we are footballers, and the most important thing is winning football matches. If you can do that there is no problem."

Winning matches is not something Wenger has always been able to achieve. His first job in management, after an ordinary career as an amateur with a string of French club sides, was unsuccessful, Nancy being relegated in his charge. However, Wenger, an economics graduate who is fluent in several languages including English, then took over at Monaco in 1987.

In his first season there he signed Hoddle and Mark Hateley, and immediately led them to the French title, following it with the French Cup and an appearance in the European Cup-Winners' Cup final.

He also discovered Weah playing for Tonnerre Yaounde in Cameroon. Weah was very raw but Wenger could see the potential. So dedicated was he to realising it that he even put the Liberian up in his own home. Weah subsequently moved on to Paris St-Germain, and is now at Milan. Weah has been linked with a further move to Highbury, but while Wenger's arrival makes his signing less improbable than it was a couple of months ago, Wenger emphasised again yesterday that he would be reluctant to pay the sort of fee that Weah would surely command.

"Sometimes you can pay too much for players when the ones you already have are high quality. Everyone here will have their chance to show me what they can do," he said.

While Weah, Hoddle and Hateley moved on, Wenger stayed at Monaco until two seasons ago, when they finished ninth despite having the talents of Jurgen Klinsmann, Belgium's Enzo Scifo and Youri Djorkaeff in the side. They also reached the semi-finals of the European Cup - having taken the disgraced Marseille's place - but after a bad start to the following season Wenger was dismissed.

He went to Japan where he lifted Nagoya Grampus Eight from the bottom three into second place, won the domestic cup competition, and was voted J-League manager of the year. Although Grampus Eight have maintained their improvement, Wenger decided some months ago that he needed to return the the game's European heartland. He was interested by Hoddle's suggestion that he become the Football Assocation's technical director, but felt it was too soon to move away from a hands-on coaching role.

That he will have at Highbury. The division of responsibility which so irked Bruce Rioch, with the manager coaching and the board conducting transfer negotiations, will be a familiar one to Wenger. It is widespread on the continent.

According to Hateley, he will be well aware of the task ahead. "He will have videos and dossiers on all Arsenal's players already," Hateley said. "He will know their strengths and weaknesses and will have studied their matches for years.

"He is a football alcoholic. On days off at Monaco he would fly to the other side of the world to watch a game, to see a player or tactic. I believe it is a brilliant appointment. I can see Arsenal winning something inside his first year."

The precedents, though, are not good. It is not the first time that an established foreign coach has been appointed to run a big English club. Josef Venglos, the highly regarded Slovak coach, took over at Aston Villa in 1990. He found English players difficult to deal with, and was dismissed in less than a year.

However, the game has moved on since then. Wenger may be largely unknown here, but the influx of foreign players has opened football minds to continental ideas and there is less arrogance about the English game, notwithstanding the national team's success in Euro 96. The time may be right for a foreign manager.