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The next Arsenal manager? Garde giving impressive audition at Lyons

Frenchman, who was always destined for the dugout, was Arsène Wenger's first signing at Highbury in 1996

Plotting a strategy for a crucial Champions League qualifier in your first month as a head coach is enough to give anyone sleepless nights, but Rémi Garde has more sangfroid than most. The new Lyons manager is a quiet, unfussy man who has taken his time to arrive in the top job, but the fact he takes a 3-1 lead to Rubin Kazan tonight in their second leg makes clear that this apparent novice has already made a significant impression.

As a player, Garde established himself at the Stade Gerland club before becoming one of Arsène Wenger's first two recruits for Arsenal in 1996; he put pen to paper on the same day as Patrick Vieira. His promising start to his first stint in charge of a senior team is thrown into stark relief by his mentor's current struggles in London N5, with Wenger's philosophy being brought into question.

It's more than a decade since the Arsenal manager faced such doubt, when he arrived at the club as a virtual unknown to most in the English game. Garde, despite being a fringe player (he started just 28 first-team games in three years at Highbury), was a key conduit in Wenger's adaptation to the Premier League and in his fellow Frenchman's success in radically changing the old-school culture of the club.

"As a player he didn't create the same buzz around the place that Patrick Vieira did," remembers journalist Adrian Clarke, then part of the Arsenal first-team squad before departing for Southend in 1997. "It was almost as if he was there to teach the rest of us what Wenger wanted in terms of his passing, movement and attitude. At a time when the old guard were sceptical about Wenger and his methods he was almost a link between them and the new gaffer."

Hard-working but painfully conscious of his own limitations as a player, Garde was already building towards his future in his early days in England, and commanding respect above and beyond that of just a senior player. "I do recall Wenger chatting to him one-on-one several times after training as we all wandered in," says Clarke. "He was 30 at the time, but he seemed much older. I think most of us saw him as a virtual player-coach, even though he wasn't part of the coaching team."

This history has already led some observers to float the suggestion that Garde's spell at Lyons will act almost as an audition for a future crack at the Arsenal job, with the post-Wenger era no longer looking an unthinkable prospect. It's certainly no easy first rung on the management ladder, and the learning curve promises to be steep.

There is little room for manoeuvre at Lyons, a club that expects a 12th successive qualification for the group stage of the Champions League as the bare minimum. If anything, the European bounty is even more imperative than usual, with the club announcing a €35m (£30.6m) loss following three years of profligate spending – and no silverware – under Garde's predecessor Claude Puel.

Puel, who played under Wenger and alongside Glenn Hoddle at Monaco, carried the all-powerful title of "general manager" – a breadth of responsibility not entirely dissimilar to Wenger's remit at Arsenal, in fact. This set-up was a departure from the previous Lyons hierarchy of president Jean-Michel Aulas, together with his adviser, club legend Bernard Lacombe. Then, the head coach was just another cog in the wheel, something demonstrated by the carousel of four different coaches in Lyon's run of seven successive French titles between 2002 and 2008.

Garde's title is that of technical director; he doesn't yet possess the required Uefa Pro Licence, so the goalkeeping coach, Joel Bats, is the name above the door. Lyons have returned to the old management structure that served them so well in the past, and just as when Pep Guardiola was appointed from within by Barcelona in 2008, Garde is considered as a safe pair of hands to reconstitute order. After playing at the club, he was assistant to Gérard Houllier between 2005 and 2007 (Garde was offered Houllier's position when he left, but declined) and spent last year in charge of the club's revered academy.

The new coach is expected to champion academy products, including the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Clément Grenier, marginalised by Puel but highly impressive in France's run to the semi-finals of the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia. Yet unlike Wenger, Garde is also convinced of the value of experience, giving back the captaincy to 33-year-old Cris (who described Puel's reign as "a waste of three years of my career") and advocating the retention of Brazil's Michel Bastos, whom Aulas was keen to sell to help offset the heavy recent financial losses.

"We felt a difference against Nice [in the first game of the season]," Bastos told France Football, "certainly in terms of spirit. In recent times, we'd lost the habit of playing together." Garde's democratic new regime has changed that. "He speaks to us a lot, and asks our opinions. That was something that we missed [under Puel]."

Bastos was man of the match against Rubin as Lyons thrilled a Gerland crowd turned off by their side's reticence in recent times. Garde's switch to 4-4-2 has moulded the same set of players as last year into a transformed, wonderfully attractive side, but the coach himself insists the change is more than tactical.

"I've tried to use the players at my disposition in the best way I can," Garde said after the first Rubin game. "But style is also a question of spirit. The players are putting in a lot of effort but they're enjoying themselves, too. Talent isn't enough at this level. There has to be tactical discipline and rigour behind a spectacular match like this."

Like many an overnight success, Garde's rise is the culmination of years of hard work and careful planning. Those who know him would not back against it taking him further still.

Six of the best? Wenger's first signings

1. Rémi Garde (from: Strasbourg on 14 Aug 1996. Cost: Free)

Garde was a useful squad and utility player. He made 11 appearances as the Gunners won the Double in 1998 but retired in June 1999, having made 45 appearances for Arsenal (28 starts).

2. Patrick Vieira (from: Milan on 14 Aug 1996. Cost: £3.5m. Sold to Juventus in 2005. Profit: £10.2m)

Vieira joined Arsenal on the same day as Garde and became club captain in 2002 after Tony Adams' retirement. He won three Leagues and four FA Cups.

3. Nicolas Anelka (from: Paris St-Germain on 22 Feb 1997. Cost: £500k. Sold to R Madrid in 1999 for £23m. Profit £22.5m)

Anelka joined aged 17 and scored 17 goals in the 98-99 season, winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award.

4. Matthew Upson (from: Luton on 10 May 1997. Cost £2m. Sold to Birmingham in 2003 for £1m. Loss £1m)

Upson struggled to make his mark at Highbury, accumulating just 39 starts.

5. Alex Manninger (from: Graz AK on 3 June 1997. Cost £500k. Sold to Espanyol in 2002 for £960k. Profit £460k)

Austrian made 63 starts in five years, providing useful cover for David Seaman and helping to win Double in 98.

6. Emmanuel Petit (from: Monaco on 4 June 1997. Cost £2.5m. Sold to Barcelona in 2000 for £7m. Profit £4.5m)

Formed a formidable midfield partnership with Vieira. They won the Double in their first season together.