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Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Wenger has had profound impact on game


LONDON — When Arsene Wenger was introduced as manager of Arsenal in October of 1996 none of the assembled media knew who he was. Some French guy who had been working in Japan was the limit of our knowledge.

Christopher Davies

He looked like a professor when he walked in, but half an hour later it was obvious that the new manager had something special. He was intelligent, eloquent and did not talk in manager-speak cliches.

We may not have known who Wenger was, but as first impressions went, he passed the test of a cynical press with flying colors.

But nobody could have foreseen the impact the man from Strasbourg would have on Arsenal and England.

This week Wenger became the longest-serving manager in Arsenal's history, with valid claims to be the best. While it is difficult to put up a credible argument that Wenger is better than Sir Alex Ferguson, given the success he has brought Manchester United, the former Nagoya Grampus Eight coach has changed English football in ways no other manager has, including the Scot.

He altered diet, match preparation and gave Arsenal fans football that Pele must have had in mind when he called it the "beautiful game."

Most of all, Wenger has proven he can be a winner without spending a king's (or sheik's) ransom. True, the Gunners have not won a trophy for four years, but judged overall, three Premier League titles, four F.A. Cups and runnerup in the Champions League and UEFA Cup hardly constitutes failure.

Wenger, who was the manager of Monaco at the time, came close to being appointed Arsenal manager in 1995 and was interviewed to take over from Stewart Houston, who had been in caretaker-charge since the departure of George Graham the previous February. However, Arsenal decided to give the job to Bruce Rioch, who had built up a solid record at Bolton Wanderers.

Houston would last only a season, and after 18 months in Japan, Wenger returned to take over the reins at Highbury on Oct. 1, 1996.

"I believe they had already made up their mind when they interviewed me the first time," he said. "They gave the job to Bruce Rioch and maybe he was a better candidate than I was at the time.

"I went to Japan and I was not disappointed at all because I had a fantastic time there. I decided to only come back to Europe for a big club. But I still had good relations with Arsenal, I was friends with the board, so I had no problem with that. I understood their position at the time."

No manager has an eye for talent like Wenger. English football owes him a huge debt of gratitude for enabling us to enjoy Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Nicho las Anelka, Cesc Fabregas, Freddie Ljungberg, Manu Petit, et al.

Remarkably, the most Arsenal has paid for a player is £12.8 million for Sami Nasri from Olympique Marseille last year.

In 2003-04 Arsenal's Invincibles because the first team in the modern era to go through a league season undefeated.

If Wenger's sides have recently lacked a ruthless streak, they still play the best football. I watched Arsenal beat Olympiakos 2-0 on Tuesday night and marveled at the intricate footwork, the passing, the movement and fluency of Team Wenger. In terms of style, nobody does it better.

* * * * *

WHY ARSENE WENGER is a journalist's dream:

"Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home."

— Wenger's classic response to Sir Alex Ferguson's claim in May 2002 that Manchester United had been the best side in the Premier League since Christmas that season.

"His weakness is that he doesn't think he has any."

— Wenger continues his love-in with Fergie.

"I don't kick dressing room doors, or the cat — or even journalists."

— Wenger shows his caring side.

"When I first came to Arsenal I realized the back-four were all university graduates in the art of defending. As for Tony Adams, I consider him to be a doctor of defense."

— Professor Wenger on his pupils.

"We even had him watched in training. How did I do that? With a mustache and a hat."

— The professor turns spy before signing Cesc Fabregas.

"Despite global warming, England is still not warm enough for him."

— Wenger explaining why Juan Antonio Reyes preferred Sevilla to London.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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