Tuesday 28 January 2020

Henry biography lifts lid on Wenger decline

Ian Herbert

'CAVIAR' is a term for a pass from which missing the target would be unforgivable.

It is the one Thierry Henry used liberally when talking about Dennis Bergkamp after the ball which allowed him to put Arsenal ahead in a little-remembered 2-0 win over Celta Vigo a decade ago.

"I moved right, a caviar; I moved left, a caviar. I was squeezed by two defenders, another caviar. Moving deep -- another one," Henry said.

As the French journalist Phillipe Auclair says in his new biography of Thierry Henry, those days of Henry, Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires seem so heady, that "we probably didn't appreciate them as much as we should have," looking back now.

Auclair loves the player for whom the French nation has shown little love. But he is not so sure of the man who detested criticism and displayed rather a lot of calculation.


The book also provides a timely insight into one of the great unanswered questions in English football: why Arsene Wenger has allowed his board to preside over such a fall from the days which feel like distant history now.

Even the transfer fee Wenger paid out for Henry to buy him from Juventus in 1999 -- £26.9m in today's money -- tells us that he has been a big spender in his time, contrary to the over-simplistic image of him as a man occupying a moral high ground.

That size of outlay on a player who had just bombed at Juve after his "season in hell" was not dissimilar to Liverpool spending 70pc of their £50m Fernando Torres money on Andy Carroll last year -- and the gamble was no less.

Auclair touches on the gambler's instinct in Wenger which is generally overlooked -- "a passionate desire to live life to the full, bordering on recklessness."

We see the same characteristic in the way he concentrates on his own team, rather more than tactical consideration of the opposition. "He has a philosophy of the game rather than a tactical awareness of it," says Auclair.

The portrait Auclair paints of the bonds between Wenger and some of his former players reveals why he has stuck so devoutly to the notion that relationships could transcend money and see Arsenal through their period of austerity.

Wenger's foreword to Emmanuel Petit's excellent autobiography explains the empathy he always felt for the character and bravery of a player who always gave everything and one whose outlook on life he always felt was defined by the death of his brother, Olivier, from an aneurism while he was a teenager.

This closeness to his players did not prevent Wenger from being a very shrewd seller, armed with statistics to back up his intuitive judgment. Auclair details how he shuffled players off "with elegance, cunning and a measure of cynicism".

Alex Ferguson has espoused the same view as Wenger that finding young players earlier and inculcating a sense of mutual loyalty will insulate against failure.

Ferguson likes to relate a fable about migrating geese to reinforce the story and even used the French word for the bird -- hirondelle -- in telling French television all about it last year.

"They fly in V-formation but the second ones don't fly. They're the subs for the first ones. And then the second ones take over -- so it's teamwork," the Manchester United manager said.

But sadly, such loyalty to the cause no longer holds true. Ferguson almost lost Wayne Rooney two years ago and Wenger failed to spot that, with no trophies on the horizon, a sequence of players just couldn't wait to go.


He had seen true Gooners in Pires, Henry, Vieira, Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere. But not in Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott, which explains a lot about his stance in Arsenal's latest contract saga.

Wenger predicted in 2007 that the era of austerity, triggered by the stadium move, would be over by the start of the 2009-10 season. Still waiting, he has long since been forced to compromise on his philosophy and buy older players, like Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Lukas Podolski.

Arsenal sit nine points off the top of the Premier League table already, and lead today's opponents, Fulham, only on goal difference, but don't imagine Wenger is accepting that with equanimity.

"He is often described as a 'professor' obsessed with data, GPS and the like," Auclair reflects. "But he is anything but a cold, detached logician." (© Independent News Service)

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