Football: The talks that turned the title

Highbury on a high: A team meeting in December brought home the message to new champions in waiting; Ian Ridley explores the reasons behind Arsenal's rise to the Premiership prize
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IT WAS early last December, a few days after Arsenal had lost their third Premiership game inside a month, at home to Liverpool, and the mood in the camp was a mixture of unhappy and angry. A team meeting was called. Home truths were exchanged; home thoughts on those from abroad expressed.

The problem, the English defenders felt, was that they were going back to the tough old days in the later stages of George Graham's management when it was all about absorbing pressure and hoping Ian Wright might nick a goal on the break. It was demanding, draining work and they were bound to crack.

They needed, they said, players higher in the field to work harder, for Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars up front to close down across opponents' back lines the way Alan Smith and Paul Merson used to; for Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit to screen them the way Michael Thomas and Paul Davis had done.

The next Saturday, Arsenal went to Newcastle and won 1-0. There were still some failings to overcome, as a 3-1 defeat by Blackburn the following week illustrated, but the seeds had been sown. Commendably, gradually, the foreign players absorbed the criticisms and adapted themselves to the Arsenal way. The players' Christmas party at, appropriately, the Cafe de Paris also helped improve relations.

It was never a question of them-and-us, domestic v overseas, conflict in the dressing room; more a meeting of footballing cultures and how best to integrate the two. The French and Dutch were coming to understand the physical demands of the Premiership (the maxim that teams play for 90 minutes rather than ease up if they feel the game is already decided) while the English were beginning to appreciate the flair that the overseas players could bring to the party, the flair they had pined for as complement under Graham.

"In September and October we had the feeling that if Ian Wright or Dennis Bergkamp didn't score, we couldn't win games," says the Arsenal coach, Arsene Wenger. "After that, the team improved a lot tactically and we could win even without these kind of players. The collective expression of the team improved."

Take Wednesday night. All was seen in the goal with which Arsenal beat Derby County and which means that victory today over Everton at Highbury secures the championship for the first time since 1991. Overmars lost the ball but with a sharp tackle, made almost out of shame and which he would not have contemplated six months ago, he set up Petit for a scoring shot the Frenchman would once not have attempted.

That team meeting may have been the most significant internal event in Arsenal's season but there have been many other factors, several turning points, in the course of an eventful, successful season. Chief among it all has been the role of Wenger, about to become the first overseas coach to win the English title, in pulling it all together.

His methods are carefully guarded but a picture can be assembled. Diet, for example, is closely monitored and vitamin supplements issued, though it is not regimented. The French players apparently poke good-humoured fun in the dining room at the English fondness for heavy desserts and custard after the pasta, chicken and fresh vegetables. Training is short and sharp, mostly lasting less than an hour. Stretching and warm-up is followed by a small-sided game and a run around the pitch. Wenger oversees all with a stopwatch. So much for this afternoon training of the continent. Wenger, a student of sports medicine and science, is said to believe that less is more.

Coaching is also minimalist, with players encouraged simply to express themselves, though Wenger has worked more with the 19-year-old Nicolas Anelka since he replaced the injured Ian Wright in January, getting him to use his body and to make more runs. Team-mates have also exhorted him to do so, which explains his own growing confidence that has reflected the team's. Otherwise, Wenger expects players to know the game and use their talents. In reverting from Bruce Rioch's 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 this season, he has recognised that he cannot improve on all the work the back four did with George Graham.

At first, the English players were sceptical when Wenger assembled them for stretching exercises on the morning of a match but the proof of the bread-and-butter pudding has been in the eating. They feel physically fitter and can see their careers - and earning capacity - being extended and respond accordingly.

"But I didn't create a revolution in the way they behave," Wenger insists. "It was a mixture. They have to adapt and I have to adapt to create a new balance in the life of the club. I can help them but the main thing is the players have the spirit and motivation to go on."

In addition, about about once a month, an osteopath flies in from France to realign the players' bodies. Wenger is an expert at knowing, often simply by the way a player is walking, how fit, or how many days away from full fitness, he is. His sending of Tony Adams to the South of France for warm-weather rehabilitation on an ankle injury in January was an inspired move; since his return, Adams has been a new player. Indeed, the captain's relationship with the coach has been central to Wenger's regime and its success. "Arsene speaks the truth. He speaks honestly and openly," says Adams. It is why the two have been an effective partnership.

Adams, then an active alcoholic, was the perfect high-octane leader for George Graham's teams; now, in abstinent recovery, he is in tune with the more restrained philosophy of Wenger, whose team talks have been known to last less than a minute. As Arsenal has changed, so has he.

Since finding his fitness again, Adams has also rediscovered his confidence and passion for his job, after feeling around Christmas that he might retire this summer. His renewed appetite for leading the team has also rubbed off on players who look to him for guidance.

There are other factors, too, in Arsenal's ascent, such as - probably fortuitously - most players receiving rest at important times through injury or suspension. None has been an ever-present, Nigel Winterburn coming closest with only two absences. When Arsenal won the title in '89, they used only 17 players and 19 in '91. So far this season 26 have appeared. The nucleus has been only 15, who have made more than 10 appearances, though, which illustrates in these days of a less physically forgiving game and in disciplinary terms, the value of a deep squad.

There has been, too, a change in Arsenal's attitude and ability in big matches. Last season, they were beaten home and away by Manchester United. The 3-2 win last October amid their bad patch showed that they had the necessary components to win the title but that it was a question of melding them; the 1-0 win at Old Trafford in March was emphatic confirmation.

And of course they have been aided by United's falling away. It has to be said that for all Arsenal's attractiveness this season, United have touched the highest heights of any English team, including the vivacious 3-2 win over Juventus and the breathtaking spell when they led Chelsea 5-0 at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup.

Alex Ferguson will doubtless be looking at the lessons of the season to see if it was simply unlucky injuries to Roy Keane, Gary Pallister and Ryan Giggs that undermined them, or whether there are reasons from which they can learn why they peaked in autumn, then looked jaded in spring while Arsenal grew stronger.

Ultimately the game is about players and it is their contributions which have won the day. Dennis Bergkamp, player of the year for both fellow professionals and the football writers - though Adams got the vote from this correspondent - has popped up with sublime moments of game-turning skill; the iceman cometh.

Then Overmars, with a season that has improved after a flat middle to evoke George Armstrong, Brian Marwood and Anders Limpar from Arsenal's last three titles, brought the dash required to turn them from contenders to winners. Ray Parlour and Anelka have been revelations. It may be heresy to suggest it, but Wright's absence, with goals coming from elsewhere as they no longer sought the easy option, may have been a blessing in disguise.

The Vieira-Petit axis has been vital, Petit a particularly unexpected force. "He is a generous player, a team player," says Wenger. "Because of the physical intensity of the English league, I wanted somebody who could help Patrick. They are good together, one a right foot, one left; one plays longer balls, one short." The pair mirror the team's style and steel.

In the end, too, it is a team game, as Arsenal's meeting at their Hertfordshire training ground in December emphasised. "We keep the Arsenal spirit and every player had the worry to help the team more than trying to show off himself," says Wenger. Now it means that this week they will surely show off the Premiership trophy.

How the red tide changed course: Ian Ridley charts the milestones of a two-horse race

AUGUST

Arsenal off to unbeaten but mediocre start of two wins and three draws but Manchester United quickly out of the blocks with four wins and a draw.

Arsenal 4th, United 2nd. Gap: 4 points.

SEPTEMBER

Arsenal firing now with three wins and a draw; United suffer first defeat at Leeds where Roy Keane damages knee ligaments that put him out for the season.

Arsenal 1st, United 2nd. Gap: +1 point.

OCTOBER

After putting five past Barnsley, Arsenal lose goal touch in next two drawn games. United in shape for Champions' League and beat Juventus 3-2, form spilling over into two wins and a draw in the Premiership.

Arsenal 2nd, United 1st. Gap: 1 point.

NOVEMBER

Arsenal's 3-2 home win over United out of context; three of their four league defeats to date coming this month. By contrast, confident United now rampant - six past Sheffield Wednesday, five past Wimbledon and four past Blackburn - and pulling clear.

Arsenal 5th; United 1st. Gap: 7 points.

DECEMBER

Arsenal reach low point with home defeat by Blackburn mid-month to trail by 13 points; United steaming on with four more wins. Arsenal 6th, United 1st. Gap: 12 points

(Arsenal 1 game in hand).

JANUARY

By winning two and drawing one, Arsene Wenger's men get back on course to profit from a United stumble of defeats by Southampton and Leicester City. United's brilliant 5-3 FA Cup win at Chelsea, however, suggests that it is a mere blip.

Arsenal 5th, United 1st;. Gap: 8 points

(Arsenal 1 game in hand).

FEBRUARY

Better from Arsenal, now without injured Ian Wright but with Tony Adams back; two wins from two games. United still appear untouchable, though - FA Cup exit at Barnsley seemingly meaningless - with three more wins, another at Chelsea, causing some bookies to call off all bets.

Arsenal 2nd, United 1st. Gap:12 points

(Arsenal 3 games in hand).

MARCH

Game on again; Arsenal win 1-0 at Old Trafford to do the double over United. Arsenal win four and draw the other, keeping five clean sheets. Champions' Cup quarter-final v Monaco preoccupying a United side stripped of injured Gary Pallister and Ryan Giggs and they draw three, and win the other, of four matches.

Arsenal 2nd, United 1st. Gap: 3 points

(Arsenal 2 games in hand).

APRIL

Arsenal, with Vieira and Petit all-conquering in midfield, now rampant with five wins, to make it a record nine consecutive in the Premiership. Despite deflation of elimination by Monaco, and with Giggs returning, United give it one last heave with four unbeaten matches but home draws against Liverpool and Newcastle are too costly.

Arsenal 1st, United 2nd. Gap: +4 points

(Arsenal 1 game in hand).

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