Arsène Wenger is the manager who once declared that "nobody can prove fantastic friendship helps you to win football games," but it has taken an extraordinary season of conflict with Arsenal's opponents this evening to reveal how much enmity existed within his old team before it was disassembled.
Last September's tempestuous visit to Manchester City was preceded by Emmanuel Adebayor relating his fury with former team-mate Nicklas Bendtner for making a mockery of Wenger's house rules by wearing trainers in the dressing room. "Nicklas has had a very easy route into football but I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth," said Adebayor, whose emotions burst out into the open that afternoon.
Kolo Touré is a more measured individual – too measured, those who have seen him struggle to assert himself as City's captain this season will say – and certainly so languid as he settles back in the Carrington sunshine to talk that you wonder how he is going to manufacture the adrenalin rush he will need at the Emirates this evening as City go looking for the win that could lift them up to fourth in the Premier League. But where William Gallas is concerned Touré has some serious history, too. The two were at odds for two years, he is about to reveal, and did not even speak on the pitch by the end of Touré's seven-year Arsenal career.
An intemperate response is hard to provoke in Touré but Gallas certainly produced one on Boxing Day night 2008, when the two clashed after a 2-2 draw at Aston Villa. The defender now says that this spelt the beginning of the end of his time at Arsenal, who took him on from the Ivory Coast club ASEC Mimosas' fabled academy for £150,000 in 2002 and turned him into a star.
Touré earlier this week warned Adebayor to resist any provocation from the 60,000 Emirates crowd that will have been "waiting for the chance to taunt him tonight". Yet Touré's own fractured relationship with his former central defensive partner is one he has hinted at before. "I had problems with certain players at Arsenal, especially one, whose name I will not say because I don't want to feed the controversy," he said back in November. "There's a player who got the manager believing that he and I had no understanding on the field. That did surprise me hugely."
But now the Ivorian goes much further. "It is difficult if we start talking about that - then it will be a big story," he begins falteringly. But "that" – as he puts it – is unmistakably close to the surface. "Everything was fantastic at Arsenal but the last two years were difficult and I had a few problems with a few people there and I was not feeling happy in the team," he continues. "Gallas and me misunderstood each other at certain times. As a player I had great respect for him because he was older than me and in Africa when someone is older you have respect for them. But I think sometimes he took advantage of that in some ways.
"It can happen after training that you argue with somebody. But when you just play with somebody and you don't talk to each other on the pitch it's really difficult, you know. We didn't talk to each other at all."
There were words emanating from at least one of them when Gallas – at 32, nearly three-and-a-half years' Touré's senior – included his defensive partner in his withering assessment of how Arsenal were not "brave enough in battle" and needed more "soldiers", two seasons back. Wenger stripped Gallas of the captaincy after that outburst – coincidentally on the November 2008 day his side 3-0 capitulated at Eastlands, the first of three home wins over Arsenal in which City have put 10 goals in.
By then, Touré says, it was clear the two men could not co-exist and one of them had to go. "I think [Wenger] understood that," he reflects. "I didn't want to make any trouble for Arsenal because I had a really good time there and they gave me my chance there. I was nobody when I went there. There is no problem with me and Arsène; not at all, I have huge respect for him. But one of us had to go and it was me. [The impetus] was coming from me really because I didn't want to put the team in a difficult position." So he might still be in north London were it not for Gallas? "I don't know. You can say that but I'm at a new club where I'm really happy."
Happy, though far from secure. The Touré who commanded his penalty area in September's game with Arsenal – a match in which Adebayor's conduct overshadowed the breathtaking nature of a 4-2 win in which City first signalled their genuine threat in the Premier League – sent every defensive header to a blue shirt. But neither that form nor that authority has been seen much since from the club captain. With City currently concluding a deal to bring in Hamburg's 21-year-old defender Jérôme Boateng for £11m, Touré's future looks as fluid as it did last April. "It has been a really, really, tough season for me – after spending six or seven years at Arsenal, coming here and having different people and different training," he says, adding thats he has been carrying a knee injury sustained during the African Nations' Cup in January.
By contrast, Gallas' sense of security at Arsenal is as strong as ever. Though unlikely to play again domestically this season after breaking down on a premature return from calf injury against Barcelona, a one-year contract extension is his if he chooses to take it. But Touré believes his present club are by far the more likely to be challenging for trophies than his last one. "At the end of the seasons [at Arsenal] we were without any trophies and it was difficult for me because I was getting used to winning trophies with Patrick [Vieira] and Dennis [Bergkamp]," he says. "After four years without winning it became difficult."
By investing again this summer City will be better placed than Arsenal to fight for next season's title, he believes. "That is why I'm here – because this football club wants to be on the top and if you want to get to the top then you need to have players who are capable of getting you there. The only thing you can bring players in with is money or if you are like Arsenal you wait for your youngsters to come in but that can take a while. We really want to win trophies and I think I am at the right place to do that."
Wenger, who has found City's largesse as distasteful as any manager, will not appreciate that last observation. His irritation with the arrivistes contributed to his own touchline confrontation with the then City manager Mark Hughes, and a declined handshake, which further fuelled this particular fire when City had put Arsenal out of the Carling Cup in December. No love lost, then. There was never much to start with where today's combatants are concerned.
Race For Fourth
Spurs: Today Man United (a); 1 May Bolton (h); 5 May Man City (a); 9 May Burnley (a)
Man City: Today Arsenal (a); 1 May Aston Villa (h); 5 May Spurs (h); 9 May West Ham (a)
Aston Villa: Tomorrow Birmingham (h); 1 May Man City (a); 9 May Blackburn (h)
Liverpool: Tomorrow Burnley (a); 2 May Chelsea (h); 9 May Hull (a)Reuse content