Football: Wenger aims for repeat of domestic bliss

Premiership kick-off: Arsenal in harmony as they prepare to defend their crown and challenge in Europe
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IT WAS put to Arsene Wenger this week, as he relaxed in the Hertfordshire sunshine after taking training, that Arsenal had not progressed in seven years.

With his double-winners and World Cup heroes wandering past, the very idea seemed ludicrous, but the champions' failure to sign Patrick Kluivert because of a refusal to meet his personal terms has brought back memories of George Graham's failure to build on the championships of 1989 and '91. That was, he says, because the board's insistence on maintaining a wage structure, and their refusal to buy the really big players, prevented him doing so. "Now you find yourself in the same situation," Wenger was told. "Nothing has changed. Arsenal have not progressed."

"Exactly," replied Wenger after a pause, but he did not seem perturbed. The difference is that this time the wage restraint is as much the manager's policy as the board's. Like Graham, who made a virtue out of a necessity, he knows there is no place for envy in a dressing- room, no place for egotism. While professionals accept that the star centre-forward will get more than the journeyman midfielder, they object when the disparity is so great that the relationship appears to be master and serf rather than colleagues.

"I don't want to break the wage structure," Wenger said. "I don't think you can win the Double and then bring in a player who gets more than the ones who did it for you. We must keep what is the strength of the club. Last time Arsenal won the Double, in 1971, they broke the wages structure. They did not win the League again for 18 years. If Kluivert comes it will be because he accepts our wages structure, the same for anyone else. These restrictions will not hold the club back."

Arsenal's team spirit is one of their greatest assets. The Charity Shield underlined this as, though 3-0 up and roasting in the heat, they still flung bodies in the way to deny Manchester United a late consolation. Yet, as Arsenal prepare to open a demanding domestic and European campaign at home to Nottingham Forest on Monday, there are doubts over whether this will be enough, and how long it can be maintained.

Arsenal's squad is not big and though the first XI is impressive, the reserve strength is not. So far Wenger has signed just two players, the versatile Argentinian defender Nelson Vivas and David Grondin, a promising French teenager. Wenger accepts this is not enough, especially as Ian Wright, Scott Marshall and David Platt have left. Ronny Gaspercic, a Belgian goalkeeper, may be on the way but Wenger's priority is a mobile striker, with Dennis Bergkamp's fear of flying compounding the lack of cover in Europe.

The Ivory Coast striker Ibrahim Bakayoko, of Montpellier, is under consideration but whoever is signed it must be by 20 August if they are to be eligible for the Champions' League. Time is running out because, said Wenger, "it has been difficult buying during a World Cup summer, every involvement takes weeks instead of days. And when they hear you are an English club the price goes up."

As a result, Arsenal have a first-team squad of 24. "It is only enough if you have a good youth policy," said Wenger, who is aware that it is still too early to benefit from Liam Brady and Don Howe's work in that area. "You really need between 25 and 30. Too small and there is no competition, too big and it is not manageable. Dortmund had 30 players with experience last year - it was too many."

The arrival of Vivas is the first step in reshaping a defence which is the collective keeper of the Arsenal flame. Wenger is understandably reluctant to break it up, especially if it means diluting still further the team's dwindling English presence, and believes there should be a season left in the foursome yet. He is probably right, especially if Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira, who have embraced the Arsenal mentality with such enthusiasm, continue to protect them. But, with all in their 30s and the full-backs now 34 there must be concern if they encounter real pace in Europe, though Sunday proved they still hold the line with aplomb.

In attack Arsenal have both pace and intelligence, in midfield there is silk and steel. They certainly have a chance in Europe, though Wenger is dismissive about their prospects and the suggestion that they might focus on the competition to the exclusion of defending their titles.

"You try and win every competition you enter but it is hard for English clubs because of the fixtures, especially playing domestic matches in the midweeks before European ones. The Champions' League is not our priority, the Premiership is more important to me.

"If you do not do well in the championship you will not have a happy season. Consistency is rewarded in the League, in Europe you need good performances on the day. So much more is about luck in Europe - whether you have a good group, whether important players are injured for key games. Who would have thought Real Madrid would win it last season? They did not have a good championship."

Arsenal could play 11 Champions' League games this year and Wenger, who picked out Liverpool, Chelsea and Newcastle as the dangers to Arsenal and Manchester United, said his biggest problem would be maintaining consistency in the Premiership when they had played in Europe in midweek.

Long term, Wenger believes the Premiership will have to drop to 18 clubs. He also thinks a European super league is inevitable in one form or another but hopes that "the element of competition is retained and football is not divided".

The concern for Arsenal fans is whether Wenger will still be there. As long ago as April last year he told The Independent: "I want to do well with Arsenal, to respect the tradition of the club, and to leave something here so I can one day come back and have the satisfaction of seeing players who worked with me still doing well. I do not have a time-span. All I know is in this job you must work every day as if you could stay your whole life but know you could leave any day."

The impression remains that Wenger wants to build something of lasting value at Arsenal but will then enjoy it from afar. Though he intends to sign an extension to his contract, which has a year to run, it may only be for another 12 months. This would leave him free to take over in Japan in 2000 which, he admits, is the latest possible date for a coach to prepare Japan for the 2002 World Cup, which they are due to co-host with South Korea.

He remains in contact with the Japanese Football Association, is a great admirer of their society and their approach to football. "I am desperate for them to get the right man," he said before spelling out a required CV which reads much like his own: respected and experienced in Europe and Japan.

With both a European league and the need to expand or move from Highbury on the agenda, the next few years promise to be exciting for Arsenal. The club must hope that Wenger decides the challenges in prospect in north London are more enticing than those in Asia.



Champions Next Year

1930-1931 2nd

1932-1933 1st

1933-1934 1st

1934-1935 6th

1937-1938 5th

1947-1948 5th

1952-1953 12th

1970-1971 5th

1988-1989 4th

1990-1991 14th

1997-1998 ???