Football: Arsene rises in the East

The new age managers: Domestic game gains from a global perspective as foreigners widen the scope; Andrew Warshaw finds how leaving home was the making of the champions' manager
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The Independent Online
GARY LINEKER travelled there to finish his career and, as he never ceases to be reminded, hurt his poor toe in the process. Another great goalscorer, Toto Schillaci, he of the bulging eyes, couldn't resist the temptation either. Nor could the Brazilians Zico and Dunga. Jurgen Klinsmann thought about going, but chose America instead.

Their destination, of course, was Japan, which, until the recent economic crisis that has gripped Asia in a fit of panic, had the capacity to lure the cream of world football for one last lucrative hurrah.

Arsene Wenger, who leads the Premiership champions into the Charity Shield showpiece at Wembley a week today, has also taken advantage of the Japanese experience. Except that Wenger did things the other way round. Arsenal's articulate manager will never forget his brief managerial stint at Nagoya Grampus Eight between his time at Monaco and Highbury and, in particular, how it shaped his character and built his confidence for whatever challenges lay ahead.

Just before the end of the World Cup, Wenger provided a fascinating insight into the learning process that goes with being a Double-winning manager. He was one of the speakers at an international coaches' symposium in Paris and spoke eloquently about the ups and downs of being a foreign coach in a strange land.

It may sound perverse but Wenger firmly believes that were it not for trying his luck in Japan, still a developing football nation, he would never have had success in north London so early. "People in France thought that I was mad to be fleeing the country but Japan gave me back my love for the game," Wenger said. "The players gave me more effort than I could possibly have expected. In Europe, you sometimes feel you have to push the players in training. Over there, I had to hide the ball because they wanted to keep playing on afterwards."

Wenger's resolve was strengthened by learning how to deal with homesickness, something he says affects most foreign managers, however macho they may appear. "For three months it was very difficult. I felt lonely and isolated. You have to be able to deal with these feelings when you are so far away. When I went to Arsenal, I was not exactly treated with open arms and had to overcome a good deal of resistance. But compared to Japan, it was like coming home. If I'd gone to England straight from France, I don't think I would have survived."

Wenger, who says he went through hell in Japan having to discard players, also learned about the pain of failure and how to stop it recurring. "I lost eight of my first ten games in Japan. They thought I knew nothing. I lost all my credibility in one month. Then I realised that the players wanted clear orders. Once they had the confidence to take the initiative, we improved dramatically."

Such a learning process gave Wenger the courage to do things his way when he arrived at Highbury with cries of "Arsene who?" ringing in his ears. Communication with the Arsenalplayers was no problem compared with what he had experienced in Japan, although there were plenty of doubting Thomases. "Initially, everyone laughed at my training methods; they found them ridiculous but they did what they were told because they were curious. Pat Rice helped me a lot. He's red and white through and through. A good assistant is vital."

Wenger decided immediately on arriving at Highbury that he would not fall into the trap of so many foreign coaches and change the squad for change's sake. "When I got there, seven players had been at the club for 10 years. My objective was not to change a single player until the following June unless we were in dire straits. Then, at the end of my first season, I decided I wanted to keep the soul of the club so I told myself I would retain a minimum of five English players."

Towards the end of last season, with the Premiership prize in sight, Wenger's own balanced brand of man management was in full swing. He treats his players like grown men. That, perhaps, is one of the secrets of Arsenal's success. "I hardly had to speak to them last season," Wenger said. "When I did, interestingly, the French players invariably came off worse if, for instance, they were late for training. Probably, psychologically, I had a tendency to treat my own nationals more unjustly because everyone expected me to give them priority."

Wenger's style, combining calmness with authority, is a lesson to all his rivals. "I remember one game when we were trailing at half-time, I didn't say anything to them for more than five minutes. They couldn't believe it; they thought all managers shouted and screamed. But I can't play a game that I can't keep up." It was the same off the field where he rarely interferes in the players' lifestyles. "I have learned to concentrate on the essential and be tolerant about everything else."

Inevitably, Wenger's success has led to a change of philosophy on the part of Premiership chairmen. The foreign manager, once anathema to all self-respecting clubs in Britain, is now distinctly a la mode. It is interesting that Wenger, who has been quoted extensively on the dangers of too many foreign players infiltrating the English league, feels the same way about foreign managers. "If you come from abroad," he said, "you must bring something new with you. Otherwise you should stay at home." Without mentioning any names, there are one or two foreign coaches who could do worse than to take note.

Wenger said that the English Premiership had improved him as a person despite the constant pressure from the public and harassment from the press. "I feel I am mentally stronger and more modest."

As his team prepare to defend their Premiership title, Wenger knows how much harder it is going to be, with everyone now trying to shoot down the Gunners. His main concern as the League programme looms is whether he can get his World Cup contingent fit in time.

"I have to admit it's a very big concern, both from a physical and psychological standpoint," he said when asked how much the World Cup might have taken out of players such as France's Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira and Holland's Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars, whose countries played the full programme of seven matches in France 98.

"They will have left the World Cup after such a high to start all over again and you have to give them the right rest. The problem is that time has been short to prepare for the new season. We are playing big teams early on in the campaign."