Doppelganger Gunners

February 26, 2007
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

Unlike many seemingly moderate middle-aged men, Arsene Wenger seems to relish all things new. Given a choice between the tried and trusted and the unfamiliar with unlimited potential, he invariably opts for the latter. It is easy, therefore, to label Wenger a neophile yet, if his prodigies appear familiar, it should be no surprise: the majority appear modelled on their predecessors in the Arsenal production line.

GettyImagesLanky, ungainly, deceptively good. No, it's not Nwankwo Kanu but Manu Adebayor.

Most obvious is the resemblance between Kanu and Emmanuel Adebayor. Both giant west Africans, they share an awkward gait that belies excellent close control, accompanied by a penchant for the unpredictable.

The Togolese is the quicker and, unlike the Nigerian, appears at ease as a sole striker but nevertheless an observer could be forgiven for thinking that Adebayor is Kanu's younger brother (much younger if Harry Redknapp's estimates of his top scorer's age are to be believed).

However, they were never team-mates, unlike Gael Clichy who served his apprenticeship as Ashley Cole's understudy before the latter's move to Chelsea. Both are slight figures but, when confident, advance on the left flank with great verve and sleight of foot, aided by considerable pace. Armand Traore, though taller and ganglier, follows the same style of play.

Another similarity, despite a significant height difference, is between Thierry Henry and Theo Walcott. If the former boasts a club record tally of 226 goals and the latter has a solitary one, it was notable that both Walcott's Carling Cup final strike and a brace for England Under-21s against their German counterparts were reminiscent of Henry, both with their sudden acceleration and calm finish in the far corner.

The teenager's game is consciously modelled on his captain's, who has long exploited his exceptional pace with apparent nonchalance. As Henry, too, spent many of his formative footballing years on the flanks, there is a precedent for Wenger to convert a speedy winger into a prolific striker; for the Frenchman, the transition proved brief.

Henry apart, arguably Wenger's greatest talisman among his signings was Patrick Vieira. If the question of the succession has been raised with the Arsenal manager since his midfield colossus was sold to Juventus in 2005, it may not be for much longer.

Gilberto Silva may occupy his role, but the greatest resemblance is with Vassiriki Diaby. The Carling Cup final proved that, his huge frame notwithstanding, he is attuned to Arsenal's slick passing, as Vieira had been before him, while both possess the physique to intimidate.

Yet in a Premiership flooded with supposed new Vieiras in recent years - all of French or African origin - the majority lacked the technique and influence Arsenal's former captain provided. Amady Faye and Abdoulaye Faye may have an imposing presence, but Vieira's skills were more varied.

Outside Arsenal, only Liverpool's Momo Sissoko merits the tag. At the Emirates, however, Wenger may have two deserving candidates with Fabrice Muamba, born in DR Congo but captain of England Under-19s, on loan at Birmingham and already likened to Vieira.

At first glance Philippe Senderos seems a throwback to an earlier era. He looks like the kind of defender George Graham would have eyed up enviously. That he is ill at ease against Didier Drogba suggests he may not be the new Tony Adams, Steve Bould or Andy Linighan.

There are models, however, within the current Arsenal squad for others.

Johan Djourou has the athleticism, if not the ebullience of Kolo Toure, another born in the Ivory Coast. Cesc Fabregas is too young to be imitated, but so gifted is the Spaniard that everything happens to him at an early age.

And in Denilson, Wenger has found a midfielder who plays with the same style - physically slight, but precocious playmakers who can control a game with short, sharp passes while retaining the ability to find more distant team-mates with longer balls when required.

Within months of signing Jose Antonio Reyes, Wenger had recruited another left-footer with a likeness to him. Robin van Persie is more of a striker and the man on loan at Real Madrid a winger, but both are capable of offering genuine width as well as providing a resemblance on the ball.

EmpicsHleb, Rosicky and Van Persie: The next Pires, Ljungberg and Bergkamp?

It is required because the template for the other wide midfielders was laid down by Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg. Their successors, Alexander Hleb and Tomas Rosicky, show the same fondness for diagonal runs infield. Where they differ is inside the penalty area where Pires and Ljungberg were prolific; Rosicky, perhaps the most creative outside it, is not, and neither is Hleb.

Mathieu Flamini, meanwhile, could assume the mantle of another French odd-job man, Gilles Grimandi, whose versatility and effectiveness as a substitute made him invaluable to Wenger.

Meanwhile, if Justin Hoyte has a clone, it should be no surprise. Gavin Hoyte, his younger brother and apparently a quick full-back, was on the bench at Blackburn. Nor is he the first scion of a footballing dynasty to attract Wenger's attention; previous signings have included Christopher Wreh - cousin of his former Monaco charge George Weah - and Alexandre Song, nephew of Rigobert.

Others have proved harder to duplicate.

Jens Lehmann, for example, is surely too idiosyncratic to have an identikit in reserve. And while it could be argued that Henry has taken over Nicolas Anelka's mantle, three members of Wenger's first great team, the double winners of 1998, still appear one-offs.

The Frenchman has never unearthed another Marc Overmars, a winger of such speed, directness and goalscoring prowess that he helped determine the title. Nor has he found a second Emmanuel Petit, a defensive midfielder who was so accomplished at the long pass. And though David Bentley was championed, perhaps by himself, as the replacement to their greatest technician, even Wenger has not produced the next Dennis Bergkamp.

If he does, recreating an outstanding Arsenal team should yield silverware in a later era... and Wenger, with his scientific bent and gift for moulding players, would appear to have made a breakthrough in human cloning.


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