Football: Wenger rewrites book on sense and stability

Arsenal are beginning to run into ominous form.
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RUMOURS THAT Juventus would be prepared to pay pounds 20m for the 19- year-old Nicolas Anelka brought the predictable "not for sale at any price" from Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, but yesterday he voiced the opinion that for an ambitious club to sell its most talented player was not as damaging as sacking its manager. The inference was that Newcastle United, Arsenal's opponents today, and particularly their England centre- forward Alan Shearer, were under-achieving because of the turmoil caused by the departures of Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish.

Although Anelka has recently denied stories that he is permanently unhappy, a troublemaker within the camp and would like to go back to France, the maturing of his enormous talent (emphasised by a hat-trick against Leicester last weekend) depends largely on his close relationship with Wenger. "It was not so long ago that I was having to justify buying him," Wenger said. "Now I have to protect him from too much publicity, but he will come out of it stronger mentally."

Mental strength is something that Wenger said he greatly admired in Shearer. "People ask me whether I would exchange Anelka for Shearer... they are different players. Shearer is more of an inside the penalty box player and Anelka outside. Without working with both players it's difficult to say who is the better. Shearer has been consistent over his career. I personally think he has a long way to go - but he's coming back slowly to his best. But with Anelka you have huge potential. Give him some time to see how he goes. It's very early to say. One player has 10 years in the League and the other less than one." But, as the revived Dennis Bergkamp said: "Anelka is now so fast. He has the confidence to score without needing a lot of chances."

Pressed on whether there would be any circumstances in which Arsenal would cash in on Anelka's rapidly growing value, Wenger said: "I have had the opportunity to sell many of our players, but I believe in stability. I don't want to change a strong team." He considers that the most dangerous time for any club to lose its stability is in the months after a manager is sacked. "If you are changing four or five players because the manager has changed you don't know where you stand any more. Although we have some older players our team is really only two years of age. If Tony Adams had moved clubs every two years he would not have the record he has. As a club you don't want to be champions one year and facing relegation the next. If you have stability you don't get that."

Directly referring to Newcastle and their huge spending in the transfer market, he accepted that the many changes in playing personnel must have caused disruption. However, he added: "It is linked with managerial stability. If I leave tomorrow maybe the new manager will be better, but he will buy some players and sell some, and if he has to leave one year later, the next one will come in and do the same again. That's why you have no technical stability."

Wenger admitted: "Compared to 10 years ago it is far more difficult now to keep your players; the pressure on the players to move is bigger. The agents tell them that they can get them better contracts somewhere else."

As Alex Ferguson said last week, the biggest danger to the good health of professional football is the ever increasing wage demands of the players, through their agents. United's current annual wage bill is nearly pounds 35m. If the richest club of them all is worried, the rest should be scared stiff.

Having last weekend had their six-match unbeaten run ended with a defeat at Southampton, Newcastle are facing a real problem against an Arsenal side whose last two performances, a 5-0 win against Leicester and a 2- 1 victory in the FA Cup against Sheffield United, demonstrated that Bergkamp, in particular, is back to his best form. Wenger is no longer dismissing the idea that his team could even repeat their performance of last season and recover from setbacks to achieve the double.

"I can't really explain, technically, why it was that in both seasons we did not start winning regularly until after the middle of the winter but last year we had the problems of finding a team - it was a new team. This season there have been different problems. We had eight players at the World Cup, which had an effect until November - but we have become stronger."

Not that Wenger is under- estimating Manchester United's ability to learn from Arsenal's gathering robustness and form shown from March onwards last year. "They have created a rotating selection system because they felt last year that they had not enough physical resources at the important stage of the season." And certainly they have managerial stability - two in 18 years.