Wenger's greatest challenge

Having ended Manchester United's dominance of English football, the Arsenal manager now faces an even sterner test
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The Independent Football

For Arsène Wenger, pre-season does not mean the grand hotels of Manhattan or the chance to walk unnoticed among the crowds sweltering in the mid-summer humidity on Fifth Avenue. And nor does it warrant a flight to Japan, even though he knows that country, to take part in English football's protracted seduction of the Far East. This summer, Wenger left the Premiership missionary work to Chelsea and Manchester United and instead he headed back to a little town which the locals in Austria call Bad Waltersdorf.

It is not, by all accounts, as grim as the name suggests and, at an hour's drive from Vienna, its modest spa is all that it has to offer as competition with some of the world's most famous cities - more importantly, it suits Wenger's pre-season perfectly. Unremarkable, and not on the map of any football marketing man with plans for brand development, it is representative of the kind of towns Arsenal stopped off at as they prepared for what could prove the most difficult season in Wenger's nine-year reign at Highbury.

Their summer has been suited to Wenger's modest, functional tastes but, as usual with Arsenal, their ambitions and targets for this season will be anything but. First of all, they must replace Patrick Vieira. Then, mollify a squad prone to break into the occasional mutiny over contracts and salaries. Finally, shape another generation of young players capable of replacing those who are drifting past the peak of their careers. And they must achieve all of this on a budget that meant Wenger was never remotely able to match Chelsea's bid of £21m for Shaun Wright-Phillips. After nine years at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson had one fewer Premiership medal than Wenger has now, but the pre-eminence of United then meant that the good times really were about to roll. For his old French nemesis, this summer must have felt a bit like starting again.

There is a danger lying in wait for Arsenal and it is that they could become too much like the Premiership's thrill-seekers, a brilliant attacking unit who mesmerise us with their football, but never have anything to show for it - an updated version of Kevin Keegan's Newcastle side. Even with Vieira, this team proved last season to be uncertain of its own identity, prone to a gibbering collapse of nerve. Now more than ever, Highbury, in its last season, places faith in the belief that - as an old cup final banner once proclaimed - "Arsène knows".

He certainly knows the Austrian towns where a bored professional footballer is least likely to encounter distraction - Weiz, Ritzing, Bad Waltersdorf (for the second summer in succession) - and the reports from other games in the Netherlands and Belgium have also hinted at a perfect pre-season of low-key preparation. But what the Arsenal faithful will really want to be reassured of is that Wenger knows where the next inexpensive jewel of world football lies and, now that they cannot afford Wright-Phillips or Michael Essien, whether that young player can safeguard their future.

Even in the 21st century Premiership, it is still fundamental to the honour of the best managers to be able to do brilliantly what is most fundamental to their profession: spot a quality in a player that no one else recognises. Jose Mourinho did it at Porto with Maniche and Costinha and, despite his unlimited transfer funds, took another chance this summer on Le Havre's relatively unknown midfielder Lassana Diarra. Ferguson once built a team around a group of young men whose childhood homes - save one - were close enough to share an 0161 telephone code. But neither of them have quite picked players out in recent years like Wenger.

That he robbed Juventus and Milan of Thierry Henry and Vieira was epic in itself, but to repeat the performance by taking Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona was extraordinary. This summer for Arsenal has not only been a honing of fitness around some of mid-Europe's dullest towns but it has also been one long audition for those who seek to join Wenger's great tradition. Rigobert Song's nephew Alex, 17, from Bastia in France, has passed muster and won a contract. The French defender Philippe Christanval has been rejected.

Alongside Alexander Hleb, the Belarussian signed from Stuttgart for £8m, David Bentley, returned from loan at Norwich City (though he has now asked for a transfer), Johan Djourou and Arturo Lupoli have all figured. So, too, has Emmanuel Eboué, a defender from the Ivory Coast, who will, if he succeeds in England, be regarded as another gift from Wenger's great friend Jean-Marc Guillou, the manager at Beveren of Belgium. Guillou gave Wenger his first major job in football, at Cannes, and if ever there was a man the Arsenal manager might rely upon to supply a talented young footballer it would be him.

In recognition of their partnership, Arsenal played their regular pre-season game in the Freethiel stadium, where Guillou is unapologetic about a policy of importing dozens of hopeful young players from the Ivory Coast in the hope of discovering one great talent. As far as Arsenal are concerned, there is an added piquancy to Guillou's African football factory in that Beveren sits in the suburbs of Antwerp, a city whose most famous team, Royal Antwerp, are one of Manchester United's most highly regarded feeder clubs.

The £13.9m raised from Vieira's sale will not be spent, however, on unproven young players from Guillou's academy. Rather it will be Wenger's other scouts whom he relies upon for recommendations. First among these is Francis Cagigao, the club's scout in Spain, whose stock has risen dramatically since he delivered Jose Antonio Reyes and Fabregas to Highbury. English, but of Spanish heritage, he played in the youth teams at Arsenal and Barcelona and has earned himself a reputation as one of the best spotters of young talent in the business.

Wenger himself is notoriously slow in coming to decisions over signing players, a tendency towards caution that saw the Turkey goalkeeper Rustu walk out of transfer negotiations at Highbury two years ago, when the Arsenal manager's vacillating became too much for him. On reflection Wenger lost little on that failed deal but he is yet to make his mind up this week over the acquisition of the Uruguayan goalkeeper Sebastian Viera.

Those close to the Vieira deal said that Wenger was sanguine about the prospect of losing his captain, that he realised early in negotiations that this was a move that the 29-year-old desperately wanted to happen and he was not prepared to stand in his way. The price still represents the second most lucrative English deal of the summer - only Manchester City's £21m sale of Wright-Phillips to Chelsea was worth more - and Arsenal were advised that once Vieira passed the significant 30th birthday milestone he would be valued at little more than £4m.

Freddie Ljungberg has signed his new deal with Arsenal, but Robert Pires still threatens to hold out to the end of his existing contract, which finishes next summer. So far, the Arsenal board have refused to give him the two-year extension he says he wants and are treating his promises to consider an offer from Galatasaray very lightly indeed. If there are no more attractive offers for him next summer, the likelihood is that Pires, 32 in October, will be switched on to the one-year rolling deal that Dennis Bergkamp has been given in his dotage.

Which leaves Henry. He has two years on his contract which would have meant, had he been a United player, he would have either been sold or re-signed by now, but, with Arsenal's schedule for renewing deals in some disarray, there remains a danger that arguably the best player in the world could be allowed to drift into the last 18 months of his contract and towards the unthinkable. Wenger knew that he could finally afford to part company with Vieira but there still has not yet been a cheque written in world football that would justify the trading of Arsenal's No 14.

Those of a more panicky disposition might point to the capacity of a weakened Arsenal team to retain Henry as he reaches the peak of his powers. They might cite the difficulty Arsenal encountered in breaking Chelsea down in their 2-1 Community Shield defeat. But Wenger has faced worst than this before. Worse than two rival managers in Mourinho and Ferguson who seem to join forces exclusively to goad their common foe. And worse than a club whose finances have been made precarious by their new stadium, the building of which they have longed judged crucial to their survival.

Wenger has faced corruption in French football - on a grand scale with Bernard Tapie's Marseilles - and emerged with his belief intact. He will not be spooked into submission by the antipathy that the other two seem to have towards Arsenal. And as he peered out of the coach window at an endless succession of forgettable Austrian towns this summer he will have taken solace in the calm they offered as a precursor to Arsenal's year of living dangerously.