Revolutionary revels in culture shock club

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The Independent Online
THE most glittering prize in British football is about to be captured today by an alien culture. This is neither a racist nor a xenophobic observation even though the ranks of Arsenal, pillars of the English establishment for the best part of a century, are crammed with continental players and managed by Arsene Wenger, the Frenchman who will become the first foreign manager to win the championship if his men do the necessary against Everton.

Alien, in this context, refers not to the personnel who have carried the famous red and white shirts on a sure-footed and often scintillating journey to this afternoon's expected climax - they have already registered a Premiership record of nine consecutive victories in an unbeaten run that began in December - it is a description of the way in which they have been equipped to mount their merciless overhauling of Manchester United's long-existing and apparently unassailable lead.

There are more forces at work in sport these days than the innocent mind can fathom and I am not referring merely to illegal potions and furtive injections. Every top professional sent into action seems to have a back- up team responsible for every aspect of his or her physical and mental well-being.

Faith-healing, fork-bending and astrology may still be at the periphery of this frantic search for sporting advancement but, when it comes to football, there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of by the cloggers of old England. Even most of the cloggers of new England might be surprised at the steps being taken to send teams into battle in better shape than any before.

So secretive have clubs become over their methods that it is difficult to gauge how far into our game this revolution has penetrated but it appears that Wenger's Arsenal are a product of an approach to fitness and diet that is well ahead of their rivals. The immediate aftermath of their grandstand finish to the season will be a mad scramble by the others to catch up.

My colleague Ian Ridley reveals the Wenger way in fascinating detail on Page 22 and we may well bless the Arsenal manager if the phenomenal effect he has had on his team spreads to the rest of the British game. It needs to do so urgently if reports are true that Juventus are even further down the road to perfection than Arsenal.

It is ludicrous, of course, to regard Arsenal's achievement as merely a triumph of preparation. Wenger's ability to piece together in 18 months a side capable of playing such sustained and stunning football reveals an extraordinary talent for organisation and coaching. Above all, to select the right players, have the backing to buy them and the skill to deploy them remains the fundamental requirement of a manager intent on taking his team to the top in Europe. The more Dennis Bergkamps you've got on the field, the less bullshit you need off it.

However, the demands of the nine-month English season can drag at the legs and spirits of the best of sides and the late stumblings of Manchester United testify to that. No one would accuse Alex Ferguson of presiding over an approach that lacked thoroughness, and there is no doubt Arsenal benefited from being able to build up their head of steam while United took on the pressure of front-running, but there doesn't seem to be a club that can't learn something from the example being set at Highbury.

Our history as football's founders doesn't help. Just as we were reluctant to adapt to the way the game developed in other lands so have we been slow to to accept that our traditional methods of preparation are way past their fail-by dates.

Wenger, who is not eager to discuss his methods, at least gave a clue why the bulk of our clubs are short of getting it right. In summing up an early impression of what he observed about us, he said: "It is not the players' attitude which is the problem, it is the culture of the country. The whole day you have tea or coffee with milk and sugar and cakes. In the morning eggs and bacon, then tea and coffee with milk and sugar and cakes. Cakes every day, the whole day cakes."

The accuracy of that statement is to be doubted, and we've all seen far more lethal confections on the shelves of the boulangeries than in any English cake shop, but we know what he means. We have been tardy in placing ourselves at the mercy of the dieticians and to embrace the world of pasta and broccoli (which appears so often on the diet sheets of top athletes it should be put on the IOC's list of banned substances).

The dietary discipline that Wenger and others preach runs parallel with holistic training regimes for each player. The days when they ran endless laps around the pitch are far gone. Sports scientists tell us that because everyone's muscle performance is different each person needs their own training schedule and because our muscle fibres differ our diet also needs to be individually designed to provide the right fuel.

These regimes can be so successful that some nutritionists employed by clubs have to sign confidentiality agreements so that they don't let the cod out of the bag. We don't want to get technical but the basic theory is that the correct amount of carbohydrates is necessary to maintain energy levels towards the end of a game. That's the time when fatigue threatens to get a hold.

So you know that if players can keep going for a full 90 minutes they've been eating the right stuff. This is another example of how little we know about the modern game - like every time a team concedes a late goal, a nutritionist gets blamed. The frightening part, as far as Arsenal's rivals are concerned, is that they might not have reached their peak. Bergkamp said last week that success had come sooner than they expected. "We were building for the next few years," he said.

Someone asked Wenger if he thought there would be any reaction to him being the first foreign manager to win the title. He replied that he didn't feel like a foreigner because "football has its own nationality".

I wouldn't dream of calling him an alien but from whatever angle you examine him, Arsene Wenger is unlike any manager we've seen.

AS IF there's not enough sporting tension around this summer, the BBC are going to keep us in suspense about who will be commentating on the World Cup final. The contenders, John Motson and Barry Davies, have been told that they will be on trial during the first phase of games and that a committee of executives will then decide whose voice will be heard by the nation when the final is played on 12 July.

Why these long-serving microphone bashers should be put through this indignity is difficult to say. It can hardly be an objective decision. As Davies said: "One man's favourite commentator is another man's ear- ache."

I have a better idea. Get both of them to do it. With due respect to Ron and Trevor, I get a bit fed up with the "expert's" intercessions during commentaries. Little of originality comes forth. Both Motson and Davies have been at it long enough to have their own opinions. Let one of them commentate and the other provide the profundities - and then swap roles at half-time. We might learn something new about both of them.