Wenger the consoling controller

A meeting of mind games: Last season's manager of champions is preparing to lock horns with the
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Something amiss here, assuredly? Away in Europe, his normally secure defence, "the famous back four" has contrived to concede an embarrassingly soft equaliser, in added time. Up front, the aim of Dennis Bergkamp and Nicolas Anelka had been as off target as Bill Clinton's interpretation of sexual relations.

You expected the manager's visage to resemble that terrifying newspaper image of the TUC president John Edmonds which frightened the nation's children at breakfast last week. He should have been hurling tea cups at the dressing-room wall, castigating the referee and kicking the team cat, shouldn't he?

It is difficult to imagine the job getting more hyper-tension threatening than this. You just had to glance at the Lens coach Daniel Leclercq, a man so perennially morose that even after his team had wrested an unlikely draw from a game in which they should have been vanquished by two or three goals, you felt like dropping him a few francs to keep him off the streets and recommending counselling.

But if his urbane, phlegmatic, Arsenal counterpart possessed an inner rage at that moment, he didn't betray it. Deep within the Stade Felix Bollaert, his responses were candid and precise, yet pointedly failing to sate the demand for rancour.

"I'm very frustrated and of course I'm upset," were the supremely controlled parameters of his discontent, when many present would have been delighted to hear that he gave his players the French equivalent of "a right good rollicking".

In two years at Highbury, his doctrine has rarely complied with the conventions of British football management. For one thing, that cadaverous face and a frame as lean as a ballet dancer's, is the result of healthy eating habits rather than the body's response to the onslaught of pressure. For another, while he was reading for an economics degree at the University of Strasbourg, his home town, he appears to have picked up a part-time doctorate in football psychology.

The point was emphasised as Anelka waited forlornly to board the team coach to a cacophony of home supporters whooping their delight at a thoroughly undeserved draw with the English champions through the streets of the former mining community. Head bowed, voice lowered, his body language pleaded "guilty". And with considerable justification.

The profligacy of the teenager from Versailles, with Arsenal a goal to the good, had ultimately denied his team two European Champions' League points. Yet Wenger had simply consoled the boy who he is convinced will one day be Sun King, with a "well done", even though the 19-year-old striker suggested sheepishly, "but I knew that was not on his mind".

Whatever was going through the multi-lingual manager's brain, he is not one to waste any of his six languages on chastisement of his players or match officials. Indeed, Wenger was already steadily restoring the self- esteem in the former Paris St Germain player in readiness for today's meeting with Arsenal's principal title adversaries, Manchester United. When some might have been prepared to bury the sword to the hilt in his player, Wenger was busy defending him to it, referring to Anelka as "our best player in the first half". That rather ignored the exemplary contributions of Ray Parlour and Emmanuel Petit, but Wenger was aware that, at that particular moment, they did not require football's version of a Viagra tablet, as Anelka clearly did.

By Friday, after training, the manager was talking him up again, conceding his flaws, but comparing his protege favourably with the world's best. "About his talent and ability, there is no doubt," Wenger maintains. "He has the basic strength to be a top-level player, but he must learn to be consistent. Of course, he shows some immaturity, but we all were at 19."

He added: "I want him not to become a Ronaldo, because I'm not a special fan of the way Ronaldo plays his game. I like Nicolas to be much more the player he was on Wednesday night, a player who through his movement can make everybody score. I'm not a fan of just goalscoring players."

Though the chief Gunner speaks with the precision of a research scientist, he has the capacity to be self- deprecating - a quality absent in too many managers - to enforce a point. "I played some games up front, but fortunately they did not last," the man who enjoyed a brief professional career with Strasbourg reflected ruefully. "They didn't last because I did not score enough. But I know how Nicolas and Dennis feel, and how they feel guilty because they are not scoring. But if they keep playing like they did at Lens. They will score."

You have to face it; Wenger is altogether just too damn reasonable. The sort of Frenchman who has you thinking that, yes, there might just be something to this European Union notion, after all. But then he has achieved the seemingly impossible and connected the football styles of Britain and the rest of Europe as effectively as the Channel Tunnel, yet crucially without patronising his hosts and incurring the wrath of opposition teams. Through his success and the manner of it, he has already made himself as much an untouchable as Alex Ferguson.

As the local French newspaper La Voix du Nord describes the former Monaco coach: "In a very insular country, not open to ideas from outside, the Frenchman is a bit of a pioneer. But he has won his match against scepticism." Wenger concedes in an article underneath: "What is good in England is that when you win they give you total liberty of expressing your ideas. In other countries I haven't had the same room for manoeuvre."

Admittedly, in the early days, there was a suspicion that he would become Arsene Whinger as he indulged in skirmishes with Ferguson, who, like many, presumably regarded him as yet another Foreign Jean on a short-stay visa. Their initial spat concerned the United manager's appeal for an extension to the season to accommodate their European ambitions. When Wenger voiced his opposition, Ferguson suggested that his rival knew nothing about English football, having spent the last two seasons in Japan and should keep his mouth shut.

It failed to silence the Frenchman, and today there is mutual respect, borne out of achievement, but Wenger is wise enough to comprehend that if a manager appears rattled, then his team can be perceived as brittle, too. The consensus is that "Wor Kev" contributed to his Newcastle team's eclipse by the sagacious Ferguson's United in the finale to the 1995-96 season with that infamous televised outburst, which played directly to his rival's advantage. Emotionally, he is never found without full body armour, allowing his opponents not the slightest opportunity of inserting a crafty stiletto. And Wenger takes a similar dispassionate attitude where his players are concerned. As the England and Arsenal defender Martin Keown explained: "He's very calm. But he understands that you turn a deaf ear at someone who is continually screaming at you. When he does say something to us it has much more effect. He speaks with a lot of intelligence. And hopefully we play in the same way."

That is not to say that Wenger is necessarily some kind of Dylan on the Magic Roundabout of managers. He can, and does, react. As Petit recalled: "He can explode, especially at half-time, if we have been playing badly and making silly mistakes. But he's more like a father getting angry with his sons."

Today's meeting of the one-time graduate from Strasbourg and the former union man from the Govan shipyard is every bit as intriguing as that promised by the compatriots Bergkamp and Jaap Stam and that between the equally combative Petit - who has a 50-50 chance of playing - and Roy Keane.

The Arsenal camp has no need to make portentous statements of intent. Indeed, three victories over United last season gives them the psychological high ground that they will use every endeavour to exploit. And that is one subject in which Wenger has few peers. Not even Ferguson.

ARSENAL-MAN UTD REVISITED

1 Feb 1958: Arsenal 4 Man Utd 5

Indisputably the most historically poignant o f matches between the clubs: an epitaph to Matt Busby's fine, still maturing team. Five of those who took part died five days later in the Munich air crash. United dominated the early stages, Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton powerfully shooting in. Tommy Taylor took them three up but Arsenal recovered, scoring three times in under five minutes. United steadied, Viollet and Taylor beat Kelsey but Arsenal still battled, with Tapscott scoring their fourth.

12 May 1979: Arsenal 3 Man Utd 2

Arsenal, timid losers in the previous season's FA Cup final, took on United in this one with more aggression but after a dull first half in which Talbot scrambled in Arsenal's first and Stapleton headed a second just before half-time, United revived, though still without seriously endangering Arsenal's lead. Brady dominated midfield. Amazingly, with four minutes left McQueen thrust through a crowded goalmouth to give United hope. McIlroy then made a brilliant run down the right, cut in and beat Jennings. Arsenal kicked-off again, Brady avoided desperate tackles, crossed and Sunderland drove in the winner.

2 Nov 1984: Man Utd 4 Arsenal 2

United were leading in the championship when they stepped out at Old Trafford for this televised game made special by an exceptional performance from United's little Scot Gordon Strachan who scored two goals. He took United into an almost immediate lead after two minutes and with Robson and Hughes (both scorers) in dominant form for United, Arsenal did well not to be overwhelmed. They retrieved goals through Allinson and the ever dangerous Woodcock.

28 Nov 1990: Arsenal 2 Man Utd 6

The day before 17-year-old Ryan Giggs signed a five-year contract United went to Highbury for this Rumbelows Cup game and spectacularly wrote off Arsenal who were later to become League champions. United eventually lost the final to Sheffield Wednesday, but their fourth-round display in London was irresistible. That now familiar back line of Dixon, Adams, Bould and Winterburn collapsed three times to Sharp, with the other United goals coming from Wallace, Hughes and Blackmore. On any other meeting between the sides, Arsenal's Smith would have been delighted - he scored twice.

6 May 1991: Arsenal 3 Man Utd 1

An evening to remember, but only for Arsenal fans since by the time of the kick-off they knew that their team had become champions. Liverpool, their nearest rivals, had been beaten 2-1 at Nottingham Forest in the afternoon. Controversially, television had dictated the kick-off times, in effect destroying the potential drama of concurrent matches. So it became a celebration in which Smith contributed memorably to Arsenal's enjoyment by scoring three goals.

9 Nov 1997: Arsenal 3 Man Utd 2

Arsenal had reconstructed themselves under the influence of Arsene Wenger and quickly shaken off their reputation for boring, defensive football. United, the champions, put that new attitude to the test at Highbury. In a thrilling game United recovered from conceding two goals from Anelka and Vieira, equalising through Sheringham (2) before half-time. Arsenal's winner from David Platt late in the game took them to within a point of the leaders and pointed them on their way to the Premiership and FA Cup double.

NORMAN FOX

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