Wenger's Arsenal boys are fast becoming grown men
When Arsene Wenger rhapsodised yesterday about how his young players have learned to love playing for Arsenal, it was not just a manager glorying in the achievements of his emergent team.
Now that Wenger has rescued Arsenal's season, and is on the brink of a Champions League semi-final, he knows that a new challenge is on the horizon: keeping this team together.
Against Villarreal at the Emirates tonight, Wenger's players have the advantage of an away goal from the 1-1 draw in Spain and an unbeaten Premier League record that stretches 18 games. That they are solid in fourth place in the Premier League, eight points ahead of Aston Villa, is vindication enough for Wenger's faith in his team but having proved so many people wrong, can he keep this young group of players together?
Eliminate Villarreal for a Champions League semi-final place and suddenly anything is possible for Arsenal although it is next season when the real potential — not to mention experience — should have its effect in this young team. Before then however, comes the summer when the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott become fair game for the more acquisitive clubs in European football.
Wenger, however, is confident that there is something more than the promise of a transfer to a big new club that binds his current side together.
"We have worked very hard with these players to get them into the shape of a great team and I believe that has given them taste to stay together," he said. "When we go for young players it is also to get them to love the club, to love to be together and to love to achieve together."
The Arsenal manager is, as usual, banking on something more important but less tangible than money and fame to keep Fabregas and the rest out of the clutches of Real Madrid and given what Wenger has done this season it is difficult to argue with him. Arsenal began with five defeats in their first 12 league games; now you have to go back to December 2 for their last domestic defeat, and that was in the Carling Cup. Those are the statistics but Wenger frames the argument for his players staying at Arsenal a lot more elegantly.
"A team sport is about achieving something together in a positive human atmosphere," he said. "When you educate players it is to give them the taste of what football can give you in your life. Yes, it is a good living but it is not only that — you can get a good living anywhere. What you cannot get anywhere is the feeling of that human experience that a team sport can give you.
"I know it is difficult to understand nowadays. But the needs of human being are exactly that same as 50 years ago. The experiences that you had when you were a child or in a team will remain with you for the rest of your life. When players have grown as a team together it is something special."
The short answer is that it will mean more if Wenger's latest young charges fulfil their potential with Arsenal rather than someone else. The lesson was aimed at the big names but also those such as Denilson and Bacary Sagna whom he has plucked from obscurity and stuck with through their tricky patches earlier in the season. Kieran Gibbs will get his first Champions League start tonight, another player whose development has delighted Wenger.
There are injury problems of course, primarily in defence where William Gallas, Gael Clichy and Johan Djourou are all out. Would it be an education for Gibbs playing against Robert Pires? "Yes," replied Wenger, "for Pires as well". Gibbs, he pointed out, had been given that Carling Cup experience, had been thrown in at the deep end, for a reason: to be ready for nights such as these.
There are doubts over Robin Van Persie's fitness for tonight and Wenger said that how his groin injury responds today will dictate the kind of team he plays.
Did this young team owe Wenger a debt of loyalty not to follow Alexander Hleb and Mathieu Flamini out the door this summer? "They owe me nothing," Wenger said. "I count myself as lucky because I can work the way I like." His team he admits — like a British railway station announcement — is "a bit in advance of planned timing" but he does not fear the greater experience of the other Champions League contenders.