Wenger the right man for all reasons

Arsenal's manager is widely regarded as the finest coach in England. Apart from Fergie, that is. His players tell Alex Hayes about the qualities that could make him the finest coach for England
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As Gilles Grimandi scrolled down the Football Association's Ten Commandments for potential candidates for the England manager's job, he had no hesitation in ticking themoff one by one. From "Thou shalt produce evidence of sustained football success as a coach" to "Thou shalt have the ability to inspire a team", the Arsenal player was in no doubt. His manager, Arsÿne Wenger, fulfilled them all. And yet he remains equally convinced that his mentor would turn down any advances from the FA.

As Gilles Grimandi scrolled down the Football Association's Ten Commandments for potential candidates for the England manager's job, he had no hesitation in ticking themoff one by one. From "Thou shalt produce evidence of sustained football success as a coach" to "Thou shalt have the ability to inspire a team", the Arsenal player was in no doubt. His manager, Arsÿne Wenger, fulfilled them all. And yet he remains equally convinced that his mentor would turn down any advances from the FA.

"When you look at all the points," said Grimandi, who has played under Wenger at both Monaco and Arsenal, "you think, 'Yes, yes, yes'. And yet I still say 'No' at the end. Arsÿne lives 100 per cent football - it's his passion. He has to be on the training pitch every day, interacting with the players. It's like a drug for him and I'm not sure he would get his fix as England manager."

Grimandi is just one of the Arsenal players, past and present, to have become addicted to Wenger's methods. Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, David Seaman and Tony Adams are others who have named the Frenchman as the best manager they have ever had. Even those who were released by Wenger - the likes of Ian Wright, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn - have praised his coaching skills. "When Wenger came in," Winterburn, now at West Ham, said, "we did things very differently. We did a lot of work with the ball and on diet supplements. All the older players gave it a go and it worked for us. It's definitely the reason why I'm still playing."

Of all the qualities Wenger brings to management, the most significant is his ability to teach old dogs new tricks. Imposing a fresh training routine on a young player is relatively straightforward for a manager, but radically altering the habits of an experienced professional can be the hardest of tasks. Yet Wenger made all the thirty-somethings he inherited sit up and listen. And he did it without ever raising his voice. "When Arsÿne first joined the club," Martin Keown said, "he presented us with the way he wanted things to be done. But he never lectured or threatened - he simply gave us the opportunity to follow his methods. Most of us thought it was worth trying; none of us have ever regretted it."

Keown added: "Before he came here, the likes of Mark Hateley and Glenn Hoddle had told us how good Arsÿne was. But it's not until you work with him that you realise quite how good he really is. In years to come, he'll be regarded as a pioneer, both at Arsenal and in the English game as a whole."

Few would disagree that Wenger is the perfect choice to succeed Kevin Keegan. And, judging by their list, the FA seem to have joined the fan club. At first glance, you could be forgiven for interpreting their set of strict requirements for the England post as a series of reasons why Terry Venables and Howard Wilkinson are not the right men for the task. In fact, though, the Group of Seven have simply issued a photofit of their ideal candidate. And the three favourites - Wenger, Lazio's Sven Goran Eriksson and, to a lesser extent, FC Copenhagen's Roy Hodgson - all possess the necessary attributes.

Of the trio, Wenger is probably the most suitable, if only because he has first-hand experience of being a successful coach in England. On Friday, he would only say: "I have a big enough job and big enough problems to deal with here at Arsenal." As yet, though, he has not totally ruled himself out of the running. Instead, he is cleverly deflecting attention on to his two nearest rivals.

"Sven Goran is a very good manager," Wenger said. "To make it at international level, you need to have had experience of the big occasions and big players. I think Sven Goran has the quality and the talent to do it. But first the FA must try to find an Englishman." Hodgson, presumably.

If one's standing among players, clubs and supporters is one of the crucial criteria for the England job, Wenger should be appointed tomorrow. When someone like Seaman, not usually renowned for his enthusiasm, uses phrases such as "major change in my lifestyle" or "transformed Arsenal's style of play", you know the Frenchman's impact is immeasurable. Adams has spoken of how Wenger "saved his life", and Henry has described him as "being like a father-figure".

There has yet to be a player who has criticised the Frenchman or his methods. But then, as Grimandi points out, it is difficult to argue with success. "Arsÿne has an incredible ability to adapt to people and situations," said the 29-year-old Frenchman, who was banned for three European matches on Friday following his lunge at Lazio's Diego Simeone earlier in the week. "He is intelligent because he knows exactly what to say to a player. He might encourage one while reprimanding another, depending on what he believes needs doing. The timing of his interventions is always perfect.

"At the beginning of the season, he will talk to each player and outline what he hopes to see them achieve. Then, at the end of the campaign, he will go over their progress, highlighting what was good and what was bad.

"That is not to say he's like a teacher. The image some people have of him is misguided. When he's away from the pitch, he gives the impression of being serious and dour, but he's actually very witty and engaging. The key is that he knows when to be serious and when to have fun."

As for Wenger's results, they speak for themselves. With one French League title, one French Cup, two Uefa Cup finals and an FA Cup and Premiership Double, he is one of Europe's most garlanded managers of the last decade. His two-year spell in Japan, managing Gary Lineker's old club, Grampus Eight, and his involvement with internationals from several different countries, also make Wenger a prime candidate in terms of international experience.

While there were always doubts as to whether Keegan had the required tactical astuteness, Wenger has proved he is up with Sir Alex Ferguson when it comes to making footballing decisions. Some critics felt that Arsenal's failure to make genuine progress in Europe in recent seasons was a significant chink in Wenger's otherwise impregnable armour, but the Gunners' impressive results in the Champions' League this season have proved that they, and their manager, are able and willing to learn.

Wenger turns 51 today. Tradition says that we should be offering him presents, yet he already has in his possession one great gift - the ability to manage the England football team to success.

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