Football: Wenger plays game of sanity fair

Champions' League: Arsenal manager refuses to pay silly prices as United profit from strength in depth
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The Independent Online
YOU have to admire his nerve. Or rather, the fact that Arsene Wenger is betraying no signs that he is losing his. As a man who, in all senses, has turned Arsenal into the culture club, the manager is no doubt familiar with Rudyard Kipling's oft-repeated verse, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you". For once, it is perfectly apt.

On Friday, he was the embodiment of sang-froid, as all about him, commentators and pundits, panicked on his behalf like a battalion of Corporal Joneses. Spend, spend, spend, they cajoled him, as though he is some latter-day Viv Nicholson. Kluivert, Shevchenko, Rebrov, Uncle Tomas Cobliev and all, they implore him. But he just sat there with that slightly pained smile, like a long-suffering medical professor who has been told by a student that the spleen belongs in the chest cavity.

"I'm getting a bit tired of hearing I need another striker at Highbury to make sure we compete with the best," reflected the Frenchman. "Against Kiev, we scored a perfectly good second goal, yet conceded three. Surely that suggests there is something wrong at the back rather than the front."

He added, disarmingly: "I am not prepared to pay silly prices for players but would prefer to concentrate on bringing kids through. One of the problems of buying big-name players is that it damages the young players you already have. Kiev want sums like pounds 12m and pounds 20m for their strikers and that is crazy to me. I will never join in this mad market."

Few will not fail to applaud his words. Least of all Alex Ferguson, who has done precisely that at Old Trafford, while constantly supplementing the home-grown talent with expensive aquisitions. That is something that, thus far, Wenger has refused to do, his most extravagant purchase being Marc Overmars at pounds 4.5m. Some value that. In the long-term context it is a commendable philosophy. But can even Arsene the Assured brazen this one out satisfactorily? One can only hope so, for the sanity of a game afflicted by an inflationary spiral, although it would be foolish to assume that he will not strike quietly and astutely if one of his quarries becomes available at the right price and with personal demands that conform to his view of Arsenal as "a socialist club". As he puts it: "All my players are paid very handsomely. No one here earns a lot more than anybody else. We are all on the same level."

Wenger has been roundly condemned for selling Ian Wright, just turned 35, yet in Nicolas Anelka he possesses a 19-year-old whose Premiership tally of six is the same as the chat-show host turned Hammer, and who can only improve. In attack, Wenger's principal problem concerns Dennis Bergkamp who, for all the concern last week about "burn-out" and a recurring hamstring injury, can boast a thoroughly consistent record of appearances and goalscoring since emerging at Ajax in 1986. The lack of a recuperative period after the World Cup may well have blunted his natural goalscoring instincts temporarily, but Wenger is the right man to nurture him through a testing period.

For a team supposedly deficient in resources in depth, it appears to have been neglected by his volunteer advisers that Arsenal start today's game against Everton only a point adrift of Manchester United, and with their Champions' League ambitions still potent. "If only" is an all-too- familiar, and futile cry in fooball, but Arsenal did not so much impair their group E chances last Wednesday when, given their litany of absentees, they performed with credit, but by conceding late goals in Lens and at home to Kiev.

Indeed, if you survey the remaining fixtures, in their respective groups, of United and Arsenal, which teams would you rather face? Barcelona and Bayern Munich, or Lens and Panathinaikos? Nevertheless, the euphoria is understandable at Old Trafford, though his five years of European Cup experience will have warned Alex Ferguson against premature evaluation. The absence of Ryan Giggs is the one niggling doubt in advance of two games against teams who will give his men rather more to ponder than Brondby have.

But at least he has cover, in abundance. No doubt, if he succeeds in his almost obsessional quest for the trophy that has eluded him, his pounds 28m summer shopping expedition, reinforcing his defence, midfield and forward line, will be used to assault Wenger, accused of lack of foresight.

Yet even Ferguson cannot have imagined that the integration of Dwight Yorke into his side would have also brought so much increased productivity to Andy Cole's game. In truth, you suspect that Yorke would flourish in any team, such is his ebullience and positional sense. Whenever he scores, it always evokes a conversation with the Aston Villa chairman, Doug Ellis, after an FA Council meeting a few years ago. Never mind FA policy, he was more concerned with waxing lyrical about a young man that his then manager Graham Taylor had bought after a close-season tour of the West Indies. Ellis could barely contain his elation at a prospect he described as "the most exciting young player" he'd ever seen. You can only nod politely and go on your way, although you could tell he was "Deadly" serious.

As for Cole, maybe we had got it wrong about him all along. Maybe not, and he is thriving on an association with Yorke that will peter out when the Tobagan is missing. But, more than most, the player is fuelled by confidence, which the Old Trafford service station is pumping into him constantly at present.

Captain Roy Keane, whose presence after a frustrating season recovering from injury is another responsible for United's sense of optimism, believes that the fear factor is doing the trick. "The lads up front are playing very well. Maybe that's because they know that if they don't do the business they will be out of the team." Or perhaps not. Maybe, it is precisely because Cole, a somewhat introspective character, is virtually assured of a place that the goals are beginning to flow once more. In fact, the Highbury old boy, who faces another former team in Newcastle today, is just the kind of player that Arsenal could do with right now.

Only it's as well not to mention it to Arsene Wenger.