Tuesday 20 February 2018

Wenger warms to tackle

Oliver Brown

A preconception persists of Arsene Wenger as the enemy of tackling.

Were he to have his way, or so his critics allege, Stoke City's bruisers would turn up at the Emirates this lunchtime and invite his Arsenal aesthetes to weave elegant patterns around them. So it is more than a little disarming to hear the Frenchman, ahead of a clash spiked by memories of Ryan Shawcross's leg-breaking challenge on Aaron Ramsey two seasons ago, praise the tackle as a "fantastic technique".

Wenger was so outraged by the Shawcross lunge, which left Ramsey with a double fracture in his lower right leg, that he even questioned his future in the game. "I'm shocked, that wasn't football," he said on a grisly night at the Britannia Stadium in February 2010. "If I have to live with that, I don't want to be involved."

But the intervening 20 months appear to have mellowed him. As his players prepared to face Tony Pulis's fearsome defenders, Wenger said: "Sometimes you feel now that the tackling is punished too much. Tackling, if it is done well -- with the desire not to hurt, but to win the ball -- is a fantastic technique.

"I like players who are brave, but with the right spirit. I think the bravest players I've met are those who were physical, but did not hurt people. Usually, the people who play to hurt are cowards."

Asked to identify the tacklers he most admired, Wenger singled out members of his own back line in the late 1990s: Sol Campbell, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn.

While the Arsenal manager admitted the Stoke match had an extra piquancy -- "it has history for the incident of Ramsey," he said -- he could take solace from the rejuvenation of the Welshman, who confirmed his form with a crucial late Champions League goal in Marseille last Wednesday.

"He's gaining his touch again," Wenger agreed. "He lost it a little bit for a while. The speed of the movement of his feet is there again, but that takes a long time."

Today's encounter with Stoke marks the start of a demanding week for Wenger, who will meet Arsenal shareholders at the club's AGM on Thursday.

In bullish mood after a run of just one defeat in six, Wenger said: "Last year we were very close to having an exceptional season. Let's make sure that at the end of this season we have no regrets."


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