Football

Published: Saturday March 22, 2014 MYT 2:07:03 AM
Updated: Saturday March 22, 2014 MYT 2:08:06 AM

Arsenal's "professeur" proved a pioneer among managers

LONDON (Reuters) - One of Arsene Wenger's first acts on becoming Arsenal manager in 1996 was to ban his tired players from refuelling with chocolate bars on long trips home after away matches.

It was an early sign that the earnest Frenchman swiftly nicknamed "Le Professeur" had plenty to teach seasoned professionals about how they approached the game.

As Wenger prepares for his landmark 1000th match in charge of Arsenal on Saturday, the methods he helped to pioneer in English soccer are now second nature to the current generation of players.

"He changed their way of eating to what was known as the Evian water and broccoli diet!" said David Dein, the former Arsenal vice-chairman who convinced the board to hire his friend Wenger, overcoming their misgivings about giving the job to a relatively unknown foreigner.

"A lot of other English clubs followed that example," Dein added, noting changes Wenger made to training routines that helped to extend the careers of older players.

As well as changing the culture at Arsenal, Wenger also transformed the playing style of a team that had built successes over the previous decade on a rock solid defence.

"He calls it "possession with progression", he loves the team playing along the ground, the passing game," said Dein.

Arsenal fans lapped up the new tactics, especially when Wenger led the team to the Premier League and FA Cup in his first full season in charge.

"He established a rapport with the fans very quickly thanks to winning the double so quickly in 1998," said Tim Payton of fans' group the Arsenal Supporters Trust (AST).

That bond remains strong despite Arsenal's failure to win a trophy since they lifted the FA Cup in 2005 and the team's fluid style means they remain popular with neutral fans.

FRENCH CONNECTION

English soccer was already enjoying a big windfall from television cash when Wenger joined Arsenal from Japanese club Grampus Eight. However, many teams were splashing out on big-name players who were past their peak.

An economics graduate who is fluent in several languages, Wenger used his deep knowledge of the international game to recruit younger players of great potential, a model that many Premier League clubs have since tried to emulate.

He tapped into a rich vein of French talent, bringing in Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit, Robert Pires and Nicolas Anelka.

Vieira was at the heart of Arsenal's midfield in a team that claimed another Premier League and FA Cup double in 2002 and won the league in 2003-04 without losing a game. Henry, converted from a winger, would become Arsenal's record goal scorer.

A deep thinker in a game where managers often struggle to control their emotions, Wenger has shown an ability to plan for the longer term rather than panic at a few bad results.

"He thinks about his players, their careers, the club's role in society. It's more than just putting an Arsenal team on to the pitch every weekend," said Mike Carson, a business consultant who last year wrote a study of leading soccer managers including Wenger.

"He is a commanding presence thanks to his deep connection to values. He doesn't go in for knee-jerk responses, that's his biggest strength fundamentally."

LEAN YEARS

With the departure last May of Alex Ferguson from Manchester United, Wenger is the longest serving Premier League manager by a huge margin in what has become a revolving door occupation.

However, the last few years have been bitter-sweet for Arsenal and their near namesake manager, who is now 64, and must decide whether to extend a contract that expires this summer.

The team has moved a short distance to the plush, 60,000-seater Emirates Stadium but trophies have proved elusive despite regular qualification for the Champions League.

Now majority-owned by U.S. sports entrepreneur Stan Kroenke, they have struggled to keep pace with big spending new rivals Chelsea and Manchester City, new powers in the English game.

Dein sold his stake in the club in 2007 for 75 million pounds and some fans think that Wenger has found his job tougher without his confidant in the boardroom.

"When Dein was around, there was more influence from the board on football matters and they worked in a partnership," said Payton of the AST. "Since David Dein left he has taken more of that on himself."

Dein, who now gives motivational talks in British schools and prisons, puts talk of an Arsenal decline into perspective.

"The club is in a fantastic state," he said.

"What is his legacy? The stadium, the training ground, the squad, the cash in the bank, the style of play, the global audience," he said.

"It reads pretty well on his CV."

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