Football: Wenger flies Pennant for the future

Alex Hayes sees the Arsenal manager blend home-grown with imports
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The Independent Online
EXACTLY ONE week after the world survived Nostradamus's prediction of a gloomy ending, the world of football finds itself at the edge of an equally dark precipice. At least that is the view of the 16th century prophet's fellow Frenchman, Arsene Wenger.

"When I arrived here [in 1997] it was still the old, traditional transfer market. When I said `you don't understand what's coming: this will revolutionise the game, football will change and the agents will rule the game', some people looked at me and laughed. But football does not control the game anymore."

The Arsenal manager's displeasure is predictably directed at Nicolas Anelka and his apparently greedy agents-brothers. "The whole story has been manipulated purely for financial reasons," he said. "It doesn't make me angry because I know how the game works, but it makes me anxious for the future. Football will struggle if the authorities do not react."

Wenger also criticised Real Madrid's illegal approach of the 20-year- old striker. "The club should always be asked about a player's availability before he is spoken to. It is the proper way of doing things. Arsenal would never act in this way," he added, perhaps forgetting that his club has been involved in its fair share of transfer controversies. Do Jeremie Aliadiere, the 15-year-old Paris St Germain trainee, and Jermaine Pennant, the Notts County teenager, ring any bells?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the whole affair, Anelka has clearly played his last game for the club. "Does he stay, I don't know. Does he go, I don't know. But I feel that Nicolas will not be in my team next season, so I want to talk about the future. I am now resigned to losing him."

Replacing him will not be easy. "That's another problem. That's my main problem. In fact I believe we need two strikers," Wenger said. But good strikers are hard to find. That is, unless you are prepared to pay astronomical fees. Christian Vieri cost Internazionale pounds 31m, Anelka is likely to go to Lazio for some pounds 24m, and last week, Chris Sutton joined Chelsea for pounds 10m. For the clubs, it is simply a case of pay up or shut up.

This summer, Wenger has already dipped into the transfer market, picking up some late duty-free buys from the Continent. In the last few weeks, he has returned to north London with three new signings, two of which were on show on Friday night as the Gunners took on the mighty Boreham Wood. Stefan Malz, a predominantly left-sided midfielder, was bought from the Bundesliga club 1860 Munich for pounds 650,000. He played the first half on the left wing and, though slightly out of position, showed promising signs with a couple of mazy runs and an apparent comfort with either foot.

At half-time, and with Arsenal 1-0 down to a Neil Jordan goal, Wenger made a number of changes. The new Brazilian left-back Silvinho could not play because his paperwork had failed to come through in time, but others were given their chance. The former Dynamo Kiev right-back Oleg Luzhny replaced Lee Dixon. The 30-year-old Ukrainian looked strong and quick down that flank, and it can only be a matter of time before Wenger bows to the inevitable and breaks up his famous back-four. "The consequences of playing every week in the Champions' League are difficult to evaluate at the moment," he said, explaining the need for new players to cover key positions.

One player who may get his chance at some stage during the season, is Pennant. The 16-year-old, who started the second half on the right-wing and impressed with his speed, close control and accurate crossing, brought back memories of the young John Barnes. He capped an impressive debut with a goal, when his low drive beat the Boreham Wood keeper in the 65th minute. After the game, his manager said that his first-team opportunities would come, but that he must keep his feet firmly on the ground. After all, this was only a friendly. And Arsenal had won 6-1.

If nothing else, this was a chance for the English players to get a game. At a time when many are calling for restrictions on the number of foreign players, fielding a side which boasted both foreigners and home-grown talents was clever. "I play my best eleven every time," said Wenger defensively. "I don't think, is this player English, French, German or Brazilian? I am not trying to suffocate English talent." That is another crisis for another day.