Arsenal flourish in age of change

September 24, 2007
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

Arsene Wenger's vice-like grip over the reins of power at Arsenal is matched, if his testimony is accurate, by his grasp on the remote control in his North London house.

GettyImagesGilberto: Brazilian changeling converted from midfielder to centre-half.

The Arsenal manager is adamant his viewing habits do not extend beyond the global game. Yet if Wenger ignores the plethora of home makeover shows, his management shares similar principles.

Operating where potential is the operative world and the value of an asset can be multiplied if used for a different purpose, Wenger's ability to reinterpret players means he sees more than flesh and bones where others identify more than mere bricks and mortar.

Where some players' positions are set in stone, Arsenal's must be altogether more malleable. More than any of his contemporaries, Wenger has shown a willingness to alter his charges' duties. The two latest to discover his zeal to amend them are Gilberto Silva and Emmanuel Eboue. The Brazilian's solidity was invaluable in midfield last season, but there is increasing evidence that Wenger views his future in defence.

If Gilberto's outings at centre-back last season were seen as an emergency measure and his first appearance of the season there, against Manchester City, was a consequence of Philippe Senderos' late withdrawal, Arsenal's business at the end of the transfer window was telling nonetheless.

It involved the arrival of an anchor midfielder, Lassana Diarra, and the departure of a central defender, Johan Djourou, albeit on loan. Excluding Gilberto, that has left Arsenal with three specialist centre-backs and five central midfielders.

Moreover Diarra, like his fellow Frenchman Mathieu Flamini, is best suited to the holding role in midfield that was Gilberto's domain.

Add in Abou Diaby's physicality, which compounds his physical resemblance to Patrick Vieira, and his aptitude for a tackling role is evident. Cesc Fabregas' emergence as the dominant figure in the centre of pitch means a solitary spot is available alongside him and Arsenal's 'Invisible Wall' is, it appears, becoming a defensive barrier.

But while Gilberto moves backwards, Eboue appears to be making the opposite journey. In his brief career as a first-choice, the Ivorian has emerged as the most exhilarating right-back in the Premier League.

Now Eboue, the closest equivalent to Cafu seen in England, seems to have been told to make his turbo-charged bursts from a more advanced position on the right flank. The sale of Freddie Ljungberg, following 12 months after Robert Pires and Jose Antonio Reyes made their final Arsenal appearances in the Champions League final, has left a shortage of specialists on the wings.

If some measures since then - such as the very right-footed Diaby's occasional station on the left of midfield - appear a stop-gap, others, like Eboue's move, have an air of permanence about them. This is, in part, because of the recruitment of Bakary Sagna, who shares many characteristics with Eboue. The French right-back's assured start, especially on his Champions League bow against Sevilla, suggests he has been signed as a first choice.

The ability to identify the attributes that would enable a player to prosper elsewhere has long been a hallmark of Wenger's.

Others deployed on the flanks have been, or will be, subject to his conversions. Tomas Rosicky and Alexander Hleb both arrived as central midfielders. Neither has been fully remodelled as a winger, as their tendency to drift infield shows, but both are perceived differently in the Premier League than they were in the Bundesliga. Prior to that, Pires and Ljungberg, hitherto usually central players, found themselves redefined as the wide midfielders. Theo Walcott, meanwhile, knows his long-term switch will be to a striking role, even if it will not happen for several seasons.

The precedent for that has been set. Thierry Henry was an exceptionally quick winger when Wenger bought him. He left as Arsenal's record goalscorer and the most notable example of the Arsenal manager's facility to recognise talent and where it could be best deployed.

Henry, however, is not alone. Emmanuel Petit was Monaco's left-back when Wenger persuaded him to divert his taxi to Tottenham to visit his old manager. Within 12 months, he had formed half of an impenetrable barrier Wenger had constructed in front of the Arsenal back four (with Patrick Vieira), helped them to the double and become a World Cup-winning midfielder.

Lauren was recruited as a midfielder and found himself reinvented as a right-back. Kolo Toure spent his first season at Arsenal as a multi-purpose substitute, seen most often in midfield and, unsuccessfully, as a left-back against PSV Eindhoven.

When Tony Adams retired, Toure was placed in the heart of the defence for the Community Shield against Manchester United. It was interpreted as a short-term switch, but was the prelude to a permanent move. Four years later, he ranks among the division's best defenders, his initial season appearing an excellent apprenticeship in Arsenal's ways.

GettyImagesEmmanuel Eboue has found his attacking impetus employed further forward.

Flamini, having had his, found Wenger had identified qualities the midfielder himself did not know he possessed, enabling him to become an accomplished left-back at the end of the 2005-6 season. It was such an unexpected switch that it prompted the thought: what next? Jens Lehmann, with his temper, would make a fearsome midfield enforcer.

As Pascal Cygan's ventures at left-back (not to mention his displays in the centre of the defence) showed, Wenger's talent-spotting is not flawless.

Yet when comparative unknowns such as Toure and Denilson develop into coveted players, it should give Gilberto and Eboue confidence in Wenger's ability to redefine them. It shows that some of the qualities required to be an Arsenal player - principally technique and pace - enable them to prosper in several positions and such resourcefulness often renders further forays into the transfer market unnecessary.

But just as Arsenal's identity has been transformed under Wenger, so has that of some of their players and perhaps his version of home improvements, including the alterations he is making to Gilberto and Eboue's game, will convert Arsenal back into title challengers.

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