VIVE LE FRANCE!
Just after Arsène Wenger became our manager, I checked into a hotel in Paris where French TV were showing a documentary about Wenger’s accession at Arsenal. It was obvious, even with my very limited French, that he was an idol to French football fans and French players regarded playing for Arsenal as a major ambition. Not a lot has changed in fourteen years. This has worked spectacularly in our favour. Will it do so again? I don’t often think profound thoughts and I rarely watch England internationals, but the recent game with France was a bit of a Goonerfest with five players in the two squads and little Jack sidelined at the last minute. I get very wound up by people who refer to Arsenal as a French side and who get steamed up by the lack of English players. I think this is almost irrelevant if the players are made of the right stuff. Seeing Robert Pires training with the lads recently, it was clear that he will always be a Gooner at heart just like Thierry, Patrick Vieira and, dare I suggest it, Samir Nasri? What I started to realise was that Arsenal’s fortunes, because we have a French manager, are always likely to reflect the current quality of French players. Judging by the recent international it is much more sensible to pick your team from French talent rather than English journeymen. Would Jordan Henderson, Joleon Lescott or Jay Bothroyd get into the French team - or the current Arsenal squad come to that? To illustrate the point, let’s go back to the beginning of Arsène Wenger’s reign. In August 1996, so the story goes, Wenger advised David Dein to obtain the services of Patrick Vieira (surely one of the greatest deals we have ever done) and Remi Garde, who came on a free transfer. Wenger didn’t join us until October but was clearly pulling the strings for some time before that. How long we will never know but there are credible suggestions that he advised the Board to purchase Dennis Bergkamp. Later that season he added the very young Nicolas Anelka and in the close season brought in Emmanuel Petit and Gilles Grimandi. The following season we did the double. At the end of that season the World Cup was held in France and, as we all know, the French triumphed. One of the all time great memories I have of the World Cup was when Vieira slid a great pass through to Petit in the last minute of the Final and he went on to make it 3-0 to France. In that French squad were Thierry Henry and Robert Pires. Henry looked a raw winger, Pires was only involved as a sub. Two years later the French triumphed over Italy in the final of the 2000 European Championships. By this time
Peter Le Beau thinks we could benefit from the French revival
Arsenal’s Henry was a world-class striker. France came from behind with a late goal from Sylvain Wiltord and a winner from Trezeguet set up by Pires. The day after the final Pires was announced as an Arsenal signing. Henry had replaced Anelka the season before, on his way to becoming our record goalscorer. Wiltord joined us later. Most Arsenal fans will know that after several near misses - Arsenal had three barren years between 1999 and 2002 - the team won another double, clinching the title at Manchester United with a goal from Wiltord. Petit had left for Barcelona after forming one of the greatest midfield partnerships I have ever seen with Vieira. He had to watch wistfully as his real love, Arsenal, ran around Cardiff with the Cup after we had beaten Chelsea. It would be stating the obvious to say that Arsenal’s French core was significantly responsible for the team’s success. Henry, Vieira and Pires were the big stars and Wiltord a useful supporting act. Bizarrely, France selfdestructed at the 2002 World Cup and didn’t qualify for the knockout stage. They also underperformed two years later at the European Championships and had surrendered their two major titles, although they were still a fine team. Arsenal reached their zenith in 2004 as the great “Invincibles” went through the whole league season undefeated. They’d won the FA Cup again in 2003 with Pires scoring the winner and won it again in 2005 in a penalty shoot-out where Vieira, in his last act as an Arsenal player, scored the decisive penalty in a shoot-out. By this time Vieira and Henry were starting to decline with injuries but in 2006 the team reached the Champions League final beating Vieira’s Juventus easily on the way. Pires left the field in the Stade de France for the last time as an Arsenal player - a sad ending for a legend - and a patently unfit Henry soldiered on for a further season at the behest of the Board before leaving for Barcelona. France reached the World Cup Final in 2006 losing to Italy on penalties. Henry played with some distinction and Arsenal signed one of the French centre-backs, William Gallas, from Chelsea. It was alleged that Gallas had threatened Chelsea with scoring an own goal if they didn’t let him leave and he became a controversial and, in my view, awful captain of Arsenal, shamefully staging his preposterous sit-in at Birmingham. It was
6 Would Jordan Henderson, Joleon Lescott or Jay Bothroyd get into the French team - or the current Arsenal squad come to that?
primarily sparked by a late mistake by a French full-back, Gael Clichy, who had been a minor player in the Invincibles but took over from the detested Ashley Cole in the swap deal that brought Gallas to Arsenal. France’s star went into decline as Raymond Domenech led them rapidly downhill, although it seemed fairly clear that the generation of French players he was handling were nowhere near as good as their immediate predecessors. They imploded spectacularly in South Africa, a campaign that perhaps they should never have embarked on after Henry’s handball controversy in Dublin. It saw a huge schism develop between the French media and the team. Gallas was one of the most reviled players and has played his last game for France, who have re-emerged very promisingly under Laurent Blanc. Judging by the outfit that outclassed England, the team is largely built around Samir Nasri who, in his third season, at Arsenal is looking eerily reminiscent of a previous import from Marseille, Robert Pires. Perhaps Nasri’s absence in South Africa owed something to Gallas’s influence on the hapless Domenech, for it is well known that Gallas and Nasri detest each other. Playing impressively at right-back was Bacary Sagna and Clichy was on the bench. All three have been regulars for Arsenal this season and Nasri has been outstanding. It was interesting to speculate if any more of that French Team might find their way to Wenger’s latest French Revolution. Gourcuff, Mexes or Sakho perhaps could be potential additions alongside our latest French recruits, Squillaci and Koscielny. Both have made a decent impression and I expect Koscielny to become a regular in the French side as he adjusts to a different style of football in the Premier League. If you are any judge of football it was obvious that immediate prospects for the French team are much better than for the English, although I do believe that once we rid ourselves of the hopelessly overrated Gerrard and his ilk the next generation offer much more cause for optimism. But a good French team, and a promising crop of Gallic talent, invariably means a good and successful Arsenal team. Although there has been the occasional dud, it is clear that Wenger has a terrific network in France which enables him special access to the best talent. Although Chamakh is Moroccan, he has been developed in France and is another relevant case in point. Is it too much to hope that the revival in French football will see another successful era at our club? Perhaps it is premature to get too optimistic but we have a nucleus of decent French talent, even if we are a bit short of the genius of old. Perhaps the emergence of some very high quality English stars alongside them will see us reach the pinnacle of English football again. If ever there was a season where we have a real chance of doing so, this is it!