Football: Wenger is still a man of mystery

FA Cup semi-final: Arsenal manager thankful for a back-line with `degrees in defending' as he closes in on another Double
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The Independent Online
WHEN HE came to England in September 1996 Arsene Wenger was largely unknown. Today his scholarly features and thoughtful comments are as much part of the game's landscape as Kevin Keegan's enthusiasm and Gianluca Vialli's studied humility. Yet he remains a man of contradiction and mystery.

We know he was born in the Alsace, near the Franco-German border, was a modest player - briefly reaching the top level with Strasbourg - who developed into a respected coach with Monaco and in Japan. He has a girlfriend, Annie, and child, who remain in France, but we know little of his hobbies or interests outside football. It seems there may not be any.

He is polite and quiet, yet tough enough to command respect in the industrial atmosphere of an English dressing room, and rough enough to tolerate one of the worst disciplinary records in the game.

He has enough sense of history, and sportsmanship, to persuade his club and the Football Association to annul the controversial FA Cup victory over Sheffield United earlier this season, yet when Dennis Bergkamp became the 51st Footballer of the Year last May, only with reluctance did he allow the player to make the briefest of appearances to collect his award.

More insights into Wenger will emerge for, earlier this season, he signed a contract which ended speculation linking the 49-year-old with Japan's 2002 World Cup campaign, and tied him to Highbury until that summer.

Whether they will reveal a complex man or simply one with a passion for winning and football remains to be seen. In the meantime, we assemble snippets of information, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and he collects trophies.

On Tuesday, at Highbury, Arsenal beat Blackburn to move within a point of Manchester United in the Premiership. Tomorrow, at Villa Park, they meet United in the FA Cup semi-final. Both clubs are within reach of becoming the first to achieve three Doubles, in Arsenal's case the feat would, uniquely, be back-to-back.

Yesterday, as he prepared his players at Arsenal's green-belt training ground, the economics graduate was urbane, calm and unrevelatory as ever. With Arsenal having won four and drawn one of their last five matches with United, he had no need to be anything else.

A few days earlier, over lunch, he had been a bit more expansive. The speed of Arsenal's success had surprised him, he thought Tony Adams could eventually succeed him, and that Glenn Hoddle should get back on the managerial merry-go-round as soon as possible.

He also surprised. His footballing preference may be Gallic, as the number of French players at Highbury illustrates, but when given control of the wine list he eschewed a long list of Clarets, Burgundies and Cotes-des- Rhone, to choose a Californian red. Not that he drank much of it. Wenger, unsurprisingly, is a sipper rather than a quaffer.

He has, against his own expectations, drawn more heavily on his vintage footballers. "When I arrived," he said, "I felt the team was at its peak, getting old and needed some re-generation. Since the Premier League existed it had not been involved in the championship. I thought maybe we were far behind teams like Manchester United or Liverpool. But I was encouraged because we finished third in my first season."

While Wenger then built on Bruce Rioch's changes, adding Marc Overmars and a posse of Frenchmen to his signing of Dennis Bergkamp, he realised the defence was capable of going on far longer than anyone anticipated. The "sound-bite" is a Wenger characteristic and he has one for his famed back- line. They have, he said, "degrees in defending" while Adams "is a professor of defence".

The 32-year-old Adams, whose influence in the dressing room was crucial to Wenger winning the team's confidence, remains a core figure. "He is a natural captain and I can see him being manager at Arsenal. His heart is here. I could also think that of Bould, Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, they are all intelligent, they could all be managers.

"But while they have potential to do it, the question is whether they will want to sacrifice so much of their life when they have already spent so much time in football. Are they really motivated?"

Wenger, who was relegated early in his coaching career, with Nancy, added: "If they wanted to do some coaching I would give them the chance but my advice is: `Do not be too quick', take your time to learn the job'."

So, should Adams start at Southend rather than Highbury? "Bad players can become good managers, you do not have to be good player. But one of the privileges of being a great player is that you get quicker to managing a big team than a normal player. The biggest thing for a manager is to get into a big club so if you get the chance you must be ready, so you must first learn your job.

"I haven't spoken to Tony about it, he still has some years to go as a player. I think he will go on to 2003, 2004, unless injuries become a problem. At the moment they are not, the only problem is how long will he want to go on. He is a winner and a winner never accepts not being a winner anymore. When he feels he is no longer strong enough to win things he will say: `Sorry, I'm out'. If he is motivated he can go on until he is 37, 38. At the moment he looks very focused, he has found a good balance in his life and is happy with his football."

Wenger, too, seems happy with life, though it appears very one-dimensional. Two years ago this month I interviewed him towards the end of his first season at Highbury. He said all he knew of London were the journeys from his house to Highbury, to the training ground, and to Heathrow. That remains the case.

Many will find this sad and a waste of his opportunities and intellect. Wenger is unconcerned. "I sacrificed everything at the start of my career for 10 years and now it has become my natural way to live. At the start of your career you sacrifice more because, not used to pressure and making decisions, you don't know if the job is for you. There is more pressure on me now but I felt it more then."

Wenger has more than fulfilled Arsenal's initial expectations but it is the nature of the game that, as success increases, so do expectations. However the next few weeks pan out, Wenger will begin next season expected to do much better in the Champions' League. Lessons, he admits, have been absorbed from this season's campaign even if the answers have not all been resolved.

"We learned many things. Maybe we were a little bit too short as a squad, maybe I underestimated suspensions would come so quickly. I think we got punished by that.

"We also underestimated the motivation of teams who come to Wembley. This is still a problem. If we qualify next season we must either go down to a capacity of 32,000 at Highbury or go to Wembley. We have not decided what to do yet and I don't know what I will say when we discuss it."

Wenger believes that English clubs, and the English game, is still suffering from the effects of the post-Heysel ban. He hoped Manchester United and Chelsea would succeed in Europe and that would mitigate the blame he expects to be attached to the influx of foreign players should England fail to qualify for Euro 2000.

For the man who partly lost his job because of England's poor start to the European Championship campaign, Glenn Hoddle, Wenger's advice is clear. "The question is do you let time heal it or go straight away into different worries and forget about it. I think he should go as quickly as possible into a management job, here or abroad.

"I don't think what happened to him will be a problem for his career in England. I think he can still be successful as a club manager. He is a good analyser of the game and not scared to make decisions. If you look at his record his results are good, he lost only four games with England and did well at Swindon and Chelsea."

And Eileen Drewery? Should he reduce her influence? "That is his own choice. I do not want to interfere with his private beliefs. I had him as a player and I enjoyed working with him. He was straight, dedicated to the team, always generous. When you have such players you always want them to be successful afterwards."

However, the main thing is having players who are successful now and, as this weekend may underline, Wenger has those in abundance.