Wenger working on second dream team

Young Gunners show genuine glimpses of the invincible class of 2004
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The Independent Online

By Ronald Atkin

The clocks have only just gone back and we are not even into November yet, but Arsène Wenger is already on record as saying he does not intend to buy when football's transfer window reopens in January. There speaks a contented man, with reason.

Even though they stutter at times in the Premiership - two points from the first three games, two points dropped at home against Everton yesterday - this Arsenal are seriously impressive at their best, impressive enough for the manager to be shunning the thought of strengthening his squad. There were even mutterings after the classical dissection of Reading last week that Wenger is assembling another side in the tradition of his Invincibles, who won the League in 2004 without losing a game.

That distinguished former goalkeeper Gunner Bob Wilson, who divides his time between work for the Willow Foundation charity and coaching duties with his old club, cannot see another year like 2004, from anyone. "I don't think we will ever again see a team go through a season unbeaten in my lifetime," he says before hurrying off to celebrate his 65th birthday. "You will always get people losing one or two in the League.

"The beauty of this present Arsenal side is that because Arsène Wenger has won so many things he knows he has nothing to prove. All the things he said, which were thought at the time to be outrageous statements, have happened. He knew exactly what he was capable of."

The celebration this month of Wenger's 10 years in charge marks a remarkable decade in which Arsenal have come first or second eight times, won the FA Cup four times, done the Double twice, and been runners-up in the Champions' League and the Uefa Cup.

This 57-year-old Strasbourg-born Frenchman, Arsenal's 24th manager and the first non-Briton to get the job, holds an OBE "for services to English football". A few might have wondered about that as Arsenal turned out several times last season without any British players. David Garrad, chairman of the North Wiltshire branch of the Arsenal Supporters Club and a fan for 54 years, wants to see more home-bred players.

"The root of English football's problems is that we haven't got enough English players in the Premiership," he says. "We have had a few Englishmen go by the wayside, Matthew Upson being the best example. I'm not saying Wenger isn't a good manager because he is, but we have wasted a lot of English players."

Four of the Carling Cup squad were English. Theo Walcott and Matthew Connolly started, Mark Randall came on for the last 15 minutes and Jay Simpson was on the bench. The French striker Jérémie Aliadière was the oldest outfield player at 23 in a squad which included nine teenagers.

Wenger, who uses the Carling Cup - the one domestic competition he has yet to win - to offer those teenagers experience, calls it "one of the greatest satisfactions a manager can get to see young players develop".

"The growth of the present squad, who are so young with the exception of three or four, is phenomenal," says Wilson. "They believe in their own ability, which is Arsène's first priority, but they also believe in him. They get a huge kick out of passing the ball, the way football was always designed to be played."

Don Howe, the former Arsenal full-back, coach and manager from 1983-86, agrees: "Arsène wants the ball to be circulated quickly and passed early, not too long, 15 to 20 yards rather than the 60-yard ball. All credit to him for that. What he demands from players is technique. It is very successful and very entertaining.

"If he has any good players in the academy, then he takes them training with the first-team squad, and because these kids are mixing with better players, it rubs off. You can imagine what it does for someone like Aliadière when he is working with Thierry Henry. Arsène's scouting system has brought in great young players like Cesc Fabregas, all picked up for a fairly ordinary fee.

"Arsène realises that every player has his own ability and personality, so he tries to make sure this is not taken away, ensuring he is given a lot of freedom to express himself when he does get around to a first-team game. He just says, 'Look, son, it's now up to you'."

In Wilson's opinion, "Arsène's attitude revolves around him being a football fan all his life and being disappointed by what he saw. He wants to see simplicity and beauty. It is the only way he will ever play, and long may it continue. Steve Bould and Neil Banfield [the academy and reserve-team coaches] are under orders to play in the style and manner of the first team.

"His vision is amazing. He is truly, truly extraordinary, one of the three most extraordinary people I have come across in my life, in and out of football."

But after last week's cascade of praise, Howe sounds a note of caution: "No disrespect to Reading [last Sunday] but they allowed Arsenal to play. It was a terrific performance but they were given the freedom to do so. If that had been Chelsea, Man United or Liverpool they would have made sure Gilberto, Fabregas and [Alexander] Hleb didn't have that much time and space."

Or, as David Garrad puts it: "I know they have beaten Man United away, but the proof of the pudding will be when they play Chelsea."

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