Football: Patient Grimandi earns a starring role

Leicester City 0 Arsenal 3: PREMIERSHIP Arsenal's versatile import conquers the language barrier with a midfield performance which speaks volumes
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The Independent Online
IN HIS early days, Gilles Grimandi's contribution to Arsenal's dressing-room banter was limited to such phrases as "What's Up Doc?", "Yabba-Dabba-Do" and "Eat My Shorts". Arriving in London with barely a word of English the Frenchman survived, and learned, in the first few months by watching the likes of Bugs Bunny, Fred Flintstone and Bart Simpson.

On the pitch, too, his contribution was limited. He did play in 22 league matches in the Double-winning season but caught the eye more for his defensive errors and frequent brushes with referees than for his football. Last year he was reduced to starting just three Premiership matches, leaving both himself and supporters wondering if he had a future at the club.

This season has provided the answer. On Saturday at Filbert Street, Grimandi made his 16th appearance of the season, scored the opening goal, and was a key figure as Arsenal briefly regained the top spot. He was, purred Arsene Wenger afterwards, "outstanding - defensively he was efficient, offensively he played simple good passes. Every game he gets better in this position. I like what he does because he makes it look simple, which is always the sign of class."

Grimandi's display, and the similarly adept performances of Alex Manninger in goal, Thierry Henry in attack, and Nelson Vivas and Stephen Hughes when they came on, were important because they underlined Arsenal's strength in depth.

As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's starring role in Manchester United's demolition of Everton a few hours later further illustrated, this is the stage of a season when suspensions and injuries bite and the quality of the squad is as important as that of the preferred XI.

With the expansion of the Champions' League the chances of any title- winning side going through a season using just 14 players, as Aston Villa did in 1980-81, is remote.

Arsenal had David Seaman, Martin Keown, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Ray Parlour and Fredrik Ljungberg absent from the team-sheet and Wenger added: "It was good to play this well with so many players out - we have a stronger squad than last year."

The stand-ins matched the efforts of Leicester, who were able to field their first-choice XI, then used their superior quality to outplay them. "It was not," noted the Leicester manager, Martin O'Neill, "a typical Leicester performance. Arsenal were quicker than us to 50-50 balls and won things we are used to our players winning here."

With Emmanuel Petit suffering from a fever as well his lingering knee problem, Grimandi set the example as Arsenal pressed when Leicester were in possession and, having won the ball, passed crisply and sweetly.

Leicester's usually effervescent midfield of Neil Lennon, Muzzy Izzet and Robbie Savage was left flat and, after O'Neill reorganised to try to counteract Marc Overmars, the remaining pair were over-run.

Arsenal's injury problems meant Overmars played on the right, where he tore holes in Leicester's left flank. In an attempt to contain him O'Neill switched to a back four with Frank Sinclair at right-back and Savage sent to left-back. It was not a success. Savage was badly exposed for the second goal, which was scrambled in by Lee Dixon after Henry had bamboozled Savage on the by-line.

The first had been headed in by Grimandi from a Petit corner. The third was clipped in by Overmars after Hughes, impressing as a substitute in his first Premiership involvement of the season, had pulled the ball back.

Overmars might have had a hat-trick had the fourth official Mike Reed, deputising for an injured linesman, not continually and mistakenly flagged him offside. If that underlined how rusty referees can become at the specialist art of running the line, Grimandi would sympathise - he knows versatility is a double-edged talent. Though he has been unable to cement a place in any one position he has been kept at Highbury for his ability to fill several. Having arrived as a defender, he now hopes to prove his worth as a midfielder.

"When Matthew Upson [who could be out for a month with a knee injury] went off I thought I would have to play at the back, but I was pleased to stay in midfield," the 29-year-old said. "I have had some difficulties at the back; in midfield I can be more committed."

He does like to get involved, picking up his eighth yellow card on Saturday (plus a red in Barcelona), but Wenger sees more aesthetic qualities, too.

"I had to convince him he could play in midfield, he was not sure but now if you put him in defence he is not happy," Wenger said. "In his first year he made some mistakes in defence which made him lose confidence, but I saw in training he could win the ball cleanly and could pass short and long. He is quick, can run a long time, and has vision."

Even at Wenger's Monaco, whom he joined at 20 having played non-League football while a student, Grimandi never played more than 25 times in a season and he added: "It is always difficult when you are not a first choice - you have to work hard all the time because you never know when you will be needed.

"I felt like moving at one stage and I saw the manager, but while he was very sympathetic he said: 'We need you here'. The big thing for me is to play a couple of games. It is important to show what you can do if you get a chance in this team. I have one and a half years on my contract and I like playing here, I like London. When I arrived I struggled for six months with the language, which was hard because I like to talk to people. I watched cartoons on TV, then films, but I could not understand what was going on."

He can now, and is regarded as an important character in the dressing- room. Like Chef in South Park, he may not be one of the stars, but he has become an integral part of the Arsenal show.

Goals: Grimandi (22) 0-1; Dixon (52) 0-2; Overmars (74) 0-3.

Leicester City (3-5-2): Flowers; Sinclair, Elliott, Taggart; Impey (Marshall, 67), Savage (Oakley, 76), Lennon, Izzet, Guppy; Cottee (Zagorakis, 82), Heskey. Substitutes not used: Walsh, Arphexad (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Adams, Upson (Vivas, 13), Winterburn; Overmars, Grimandi, Petit, Silvinho (Hughes, 64); Kanu, Henry (Barrett, 89). Substitutes not used: Lukic (gk), Suker.

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Booked: Arsenal: Grimandi.

Man of the match: Overmars.

Attendance: 20,495.