Football: The French revolutionary

Arsene Wenger is putting the accent not only on foreign players but on the value of a strong youth system
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The Arsenal players were a little bemused at being summoned from their rooms to the hotel ballroom that Saturday morning. What's this new French geezer up to now? Is he 'aving a laugh? As the story goes, Arsene Wenger had decided on a gentle introduction to his methods before his first match in full charge as their new coach, against Blackburn Rovers last autumn. None of this hanging about in lobbies - at which footballers become very adept - until departure time. Instead, 30 minutes of muscle-toning and stretching.

"For them it was absolutely crazy, maybe, but for me it was normal," Wenger recalled. "There was laughing a little bit and joking, but they did it." It helped that Arsenal went on to win the match that afternoon and initially sceptical minds began to open; as Wenger understands the nature of the footballing animal, anything that helps him improve and achieve is fine by him.

When Wenger arrived from Japan 10 months ago he heard tell of an ageing Arsenal in need of rebuilding. He planned changes, in personnel, in formation. He actually found a strong, purposeful group. "When I saw the spirit of the team, I was scared to disturb it," he says. "It was a difficult time to change. They were going on and on in the league."

He settled for recruiting Patrick Vieira to the midfield, Remi Garde and Nicolas Anelka to the squad, and for allowing players more attacking licence. He also instigated a regime of shorter, sharper training sessions, healthier diets and ongoing physical conditioning. Once a month, a chiropractor flew in from France to realign weary bodies.

This summer, evolution has turned to revolution and it seemed appropriate that we met on his native country's Bastille Day to discuss the new regime that has seen a claque of overseas players arrive, along with - almost unnoticed - a new managerial assistant in Boro Primorac, who previously worked with Wenger at Grampus Eight in Japan.

While Arsenal had gone surprisingly close to the Premiership title last season, Wenger was aware that the the squad was thin and the significant matches against title rivals lost - at home to Manchester United, Newcastle and Liverpool. The time was right to go that extra kilometre.

Chief among the signings has been the Ajax winger Mark Overmars, who cost some pounds 7m, a figure Wenger is reluctant to repeat to acquire the services of Blackburn's Graeme Le Saux. The goalkeeper Alex Manninger came as back-up to David Seaman, the defender Matthew Upson is one for the future, as is the midfielder Alberto Mendez-Rodriguez. Gilles Grimandi, Emmanuel Petit and Luis Boa Morte Pereira will put the places of the more established English players under pressure.

"You can say today that Arsenal have eight players of good prospect, between 18 and 22, and that was not the case one year ago. It goes from goalkeeper, defenders, midfielders and strikers, so I think we did a lot," said Wenger. "We also have players who can help at international level, players at their peak. The squad is deeper and the mixture is better."

That guru of the Gooners, Nick Hornby, argued in Fever Pitch that fans do not necessarily, contrary to belief, want to be the players on the pitch but see them as their chosen representatives. Wenger concedes that it may take a while for Highbury to become identified with the new European era, especially since the departure to Middlesbrough of Paul Merson, with its connotations of selling the family silver.

Efforts are under way, however, to re-establish the youth system that once produced Merson among such title winners as Michael Thomas and David Rocastle. No fewer than five youth officers are now listed among the personnel, with Don Howe having been brought back.

"I can understand why people are protective about too many foreigners," said Wenger. "It is the same in France and Germany and it is difficult to find the right balance. But I think it is more a question of right and wrong spirit, rather than nationality." As Wenger pointed out last week, Blackburn could buy "a whole team on the Continent" for their asking price for Le Saux.

"First I had to look for players with the Arsenal spirit," Wenger added. "I don't think there is the possibility now of finding 11 top-class players who are English, though I would love to do it. We had a gap between the older and younger players and we could only fill it with foreign players. I considered only 'can they adapt to Arsenal, can they fight for the club?' The second priority was the nationality.

"The youths will also be important. That used to be the strength of Arsenal. Now we have not the quality we need. If you look at the national team, most are coming from Manchester United, not Arsenal."

Wenger should not be taken literally about fighting spirit; Arsenal need to improve a poor disciplinary record under him if they are to avoid costly suspensions. And Wenger himself must guard against developing a blind spot to the problem.

The image of the lanky, upright, multi-lingual Wenger is of an erudite sophisticate. As a young player in Strasbourg's midfield, he believes he had "good vision and a good technique. But like many tall guys I had a lack of speed. Not in the running, but in turning". By 25, 22 years ago now, he knew his talents were leading him to coaching. "Early on, the coaches gave me responsibilities inside the team and the other players came to me if they had problems to sort out with the board."

But there is also a toughness to the Alsatian, as in the way he dealt emphatically with scurrilous rumours about his private life last year, and the barbs of Alex Ferguson in response to this new face's suggestions that the season should not be extended for them. On the first count: "I sleep very well, because I know who I am." On the second: "I say what I think."

He is no mere theorist, either. "In my job, you never think that you don't have to win. You are in the job because you like to win. The task is to find the best way to do it." Ironically, as English football has moved more towards the 3-5-2 system, led by Glenn Hoddle, whom he inspired into coaching when he had charge of the now England coach at Monaco, Wenger believes that the old 4-4-2 is still the best way; another change that Arsenal will be embracing, injuries permitting.

"It is a more aggressive system. You try to win the ball higher in the field. With 3-5-2 you have only two players wide. For me, the natural balance of the team is six inside, four outside." The present vogue, Wenger believes, may have something to do with a backlash to the long ball and waning midfield technique; numbers crammed in small spaces to conceal deficiencies.

Highbury, the third smallest pitch in the Premiership, presents its own problems. "It is made for old English football," said Wenger. "Long ball, good headers, deflection, goal. You can play like this or with super speed and super technique. I feel more comfortable with that. Teams who come to Highbury defend deep and wait for a mistake to strike. We have to have quality in our passing and movement to overcome this."

The Dutchman Overmars was the first target, even allowing for doubts about whether, after knee surgery, he still has the pace that embarrassed England at Wembley four years ago. In Boa Morte, there is potentially another flying winger, though early reports suggest that his crossing may not yet do justice to his pace.

"Two quick wingers was a possibility I wanted to have," Wenger said. "Overmars can play on either side and opponents will put their quickest man on him. With Boa Morte, I have two. With Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright also, I have four attacking players. It is exciting to think we have more attacking possibilities."

Wright may also soon have to look to his laurels, with Wenger - although conceding a deal for George Weah is unlikely - having sought to sign the out-of-contract Monaco striker Christophe Wreh. Others whose places look in danger appear to be Steve Bould and David Platt. Tony Adams is suspended for the first two matches, Lee Dixon has been injured and it is possible to envisage David Seaman as the only Englishman who will begin the season in the side.

Yet Wenger knows how perilous it would be to ditch baby with bathwater. He returns to the celebrated Arsenal spirit. He believes that overseas players have a better attitude to training - English players being used to relaxing between so many matches - but that on game day, there is none so reliable.

Domestic technique is also often better, he adds surprisingly. "English players know how to give everything. Adams, Dixon, Bould, Winterburn, Keown...they never give up," Wenger said. "These players are difficult to play against. Some may be getting old but they are still playing well." The team could in fact take on an Italian look; home-grown defenders, overseas attackers.

Chelsea's Ruud Gullit has become the first overseas manager to win the FA Cup; can Wenger be the first to take the title? These days the Arsenal players are used to all his stretching; in the season ahead the task for him and them will be to stretch that little bit further.