Wenger: defeat is unthinkable, and so is playing badly
Oh what a feast, oh what a tasty delight, oh what - given the presence of the Swede Henrik Larsson - a smorgasbord. Today Arsenal face Manchester United for the 200th time in a competitive match and, for Arsène Wenger, the ingredients have all been gathered for what should be a classic encounter. A signature dish, if you like.
Food will be associated with these two teams for as long as the infamous Battle of the Buffet, the pizza and soup-throwing chaos that followed United's fierce resolve to end Arsenal's 49-match unbeaten run in the autumn of 2004, is remembered.
Wenger remembers it well and needs little prompting. "They stopped us from playing," he says simply of the brutal encounter that he acknowledges represented the lowest point of his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson. That negativity will not happen this afternoon. Both sides, Wenger claims, will come out and play attacking football. It is their recipe for success.
Like every good recipe, there is a special ingredient. Wenger explains what that is. "I know when I develop a player if he will be a good player," he says. "But will he be a winner at the top level? That is something you never know, no matter how good the player is. Because to win a game with 10 minutes to go, both teams playing poorly, somebody finds something because he is a winner. That's the test you get. It's the one ingredient that you never master well as a manager, even with a lot of experience."
That's because it comes from within. "The young players look to have the ingredient to be a winner," Wenger says of his team. "That is what makes the difference." Ferguson, too, discovered it. "It is what made the difference with that generation of Scholes, Giggs and Beckham," Wenger says of United. "They won championships - once, twice, three and four times - and still were hungry. Because they were winners."
Wenger admits that not so long ago he wasn't so sure it was there in his team. Before Christmas, his frustration was obvious. His touchline antics at Upton Park, when he clashed with the then West Ham manager, Alan Pardew, were simply astonishing. They were, he says, born of frustration. It shocked the public; maybe it shocked his players.
"I just sometimes feel that unusual behaviour can wake up things, and I certainly had unusual behaviour in some games," Wenger says. "As a manager you can only survive or live with how you feel at that moment. You cannot cheat the players. They are intelligent and are with you every day and see what kind of mood you are in. You cannot cheat with your attitude. At that time I behaved as I was, not as I wanted to be."
Wenger feels his sense of equilibrium has been restored. Results provided the remedy. "What made me angry was to lose at Fulham, to lose at West Ham, the way we lost. We didn't test them really. We had superficial superiority but that's not good enough. But when you want to develop a team, a young team, you have matches like that.
"What changed is that you feel you are missing something in the games to win the games. When you watch games long enough, you know you will play well and have more of the ball but in the end you will not win because something is missing. And that can only be that bit of extra-special solidarity, unity, that burning desire to win. We've all seen enough games to say, 'OK, it's a good team, but is it a winning team?' And in October, November, we lost games that were difficult to accept to lose."
Defeat today is unthinkable. Wenger declares it would end Arsenal's title challenge but, 15 points behind United before kick-off, most feel it ended some time ago. "It looks 80 per cent that it will be decided between the two [Manchester United and Chelsea]," Wenger says. "But there is 20 per cent still there. It's still not over. Today everyone will say Man United, but it can change very quickly. This is the weekend. If Man United beat Arsenal, Arsenal are out of it definitely. There is no way back."
There is great respect for United - "Yes, I like to watch them because they like to play" - and the sneaking feeling is that if Arsenal don't win the Premiership, he would prefer them to be the victors, not Chelsea. That may be stretching it, but Wenger returns to the theme of lack of "economic responsibility" at Stam- ford Bridge. Financially doped, he has called it. "If I win the championship and my club lose £200 million, I don't feel very proud. I want to win the championship and the club to make £50m. Then I'm doing my job."
It's a job in which his longevity is stretching to a second decade. That provides another bond with the longest-serving manager. "Over the years you have probably been more aware of our differences," he says of his relationship with Ferguson, "but we have a lot of things in common as well, and one of those is the passion for winning and a passion for the game. You do not last in our job if you don't have the passion."
There are many players on view today who share that passion, none more than the 35-year-old Larsson. When asked for his memories of the striker, Wenger replies, with last May's European Cup final in mind, "nightmares more like". There is deep admiration, too. "I'm amazed he still can cope with the physical demands of the game because he's not an especially physical player. He's so intelligent. When he played against Aston Villa in the Cup he gave a demonstration of how simple the game of a striker can be. You do not need to fight or be strong. Every single move was so well-timed, so intel-ligent, it was a demonstration."
Larsson's presence, along with the development of United this season, ensures it will be a contest for the connoisseurs. There is another guarantee - Wenger's philosophy. He is not likely to ask his team to take the physical approach favoured by United in 2004, is he? "With Fabregas, Rosicky, Hleb?" he replies, incredulous. The banquet has been laid.
Midfield Magician: Anatomy of Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas
A remarkably mature head on 19-year-old shoulders. Cesc Fabregas took on the burden of replacing Patrick Vieira in midfield, soon mastered the alien demands of the Premiership and seemed quite at home in the Champions' League final and at the World Cup.
Fabregas is ideally suited to Arsenal's one-touch philosophy with his precise knowledge of his team-mates' whereabouts. Allied to this is the ability to pick out a pass Bergkamp-style, and the curious way he is always on hand to receive the ball.
Fabregas has become the heartbeat of the team, with the play flowing through him. His outstanding display at Blackburn after the sending-off of fellow central midfielder Gilberto Silva showed his commitment. Unlike others before, he seems settled at the club.
Fabregas began the season with two goals in the Champions' League qualifier, sparking hopes that his tally might increase. It was not to be, but he has an eye for goal and is young enough to add this facet to his game in time.
Happy to play the short passes as much as the Hollywood balls, Fabregas seems to have hands for feet, such is the weighting and timing. With the team playing at a high tempo around him, the teenager is the calm in the eye of the storm.
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