By Richard Clarke
YouTube can be an unforgiving place at times.
Tucked away in the vast vaults of that video-sharing site is an old, grainy clip which purports to be Arsène Wenger’s first ever interview in English.
Under a barrage of brown curls, the then Monaco manager talks with familiar candour about his side’s 2-1 win in the Cup-Winners Cup first round first leg in 1991. Swansea were the opponents and The Vetch Field the venue.
Monaco would thump the Welshman 8-0 in the return game back in France. But then, at that time, they were a mighty side – George Weah, Youri Djorkaeff, Emmanuel Petit et al - and their European run that season would only be stopped by Werder Bremen in the Final.
How times change. In the intervening 20 years, Wenger’s English has become more articulate, his hair more grey and his reputation in Britain much more exalted.
Swansea’s rise has not been so smooth but they entertain Arsenal this weekend in their best shape since a decade before Wenger’s long, forgotten trip to ‘The Vetch’.
Put it this way - if Arsenal score eight against Brendan Rodgers’ side on Sunday it would triple the goals they have conceded at their new home, the Liberty Stadium, this term.
Swansea are the first Welsh side to reach the Premier League and, this season, their defence has been binary - conceding six 0s and four 1s. Only Manchester City have been so miserly at home and only Manchester United have come away from South Wales with a victory.
But Wenger admires their style as much as their statistics.
“We know Swansea have the quality to exist in the Premier League because they play such positive football,” he said. “If you look at the numbers, they master possession in a lot of games. That means they have the technical quality to be at the level where they are and over 38 games that will pay off for you.
“They remind me a bit of Blackpool last year. They play with freedom and a positive style going forward. Perhaps they are a bit more cautious than Blackpool because they were a really offensive-minded team. But Swansea don't concede goals and they have a kind of conservative possession.
“They keep the ball a lot in their own half and go through their wingers to keep that possession. They do not throw all their bodies forward.
“I feel you should give credit to their manager for [the way they play]. I think that when you are a manager in your first season [in the Premier League] you impose a style based on your beliefs and I don't think they will change no matter what happens.
“The young managers coming up now do have a different style it seems. You have Wigan, of course, then this year you have Swansea and Norwich. Last season there was Blackpool. It does not mean that teams like Stoke will be less efficient - the opposite maybe. But these teams give you a problem you are not used to facing and that makes their game even more dangerous.”
Wenger will make a late call on the inclusion of Per Mertesacker and Tomas Rosicky. Neither trained this week due to sickness. Johan Djourou is back from suspension to return at right-back and, after losing Francis Coquelin (hamstring) against Leeds on Monday night, the only real option on the opposite side would appear to be Ignasi Miquel.
Of course, that FA Cup tie will be remembered by Thierry Henry’s late strike. The Frenchman is in the squad for Swansea but as he admits himself, Robin van Persie is the “main man” now. The Dutchman returns after being rested against Leeds while Wenger confirmed that Henry’s current level of fitness would not last a game even if he did start.
“The most important thing is that Thierry helps the team to win,” said Wenger. “He can make us win games coming off the bench or he can make us win games starting them. But basically he just wants to help the team.
“He was very happy after the Leeds game because it is always a big gamble when you come back like that. He qualified us in a very difficult game and all went well on the night. It was a perfect night for him and for us.”
That was a marked contrast to Arsenal’s last Premier League outing at Fulham on January 2; a game in which the visitors led, looked in control and then faded badly. The defeat leaves Wenger’s men 12 points off the top with 18 games remaining; a huge handicap to his side’s title chances but, given inconsistency elsewhere, the manager argues the position is not yet terminal.
“I don't deny that it is very difficult for us to win the League but it is not impossible,” remarked Wenger. “I only say that because it looks like there are no teams that will keep the consistency they showed in the first half of the season. And that's what we need because if [Manchester City] do make 45 points again [in the second half of the campaign] then, yes, for us it would be impossible.
“But we felt that we produced the needed performance to win the game at Craven Cottage. Unfortunately it was down to the mistakes that we made late in the game and, of course we want to bounce back quickly now.”
With Manchester United and their mighty away record due at Emirates Stadium next week, Arsenal need a lift. Given the performance and opposition, you could accept that long unbeaten run ending at Manchester City before Christmas. There was no such solace at Craven Cottage.
Perhaps Wenger should evoke a little of the Monaco spirit from 1991.
“Yes, I remember the 8-0 at home,” he said. “We'd had a comfortable first half over there because we had a lot of possession. In the second half they came out with a real British spirit and gave us a tough time. “In Monaco it was a bit easier for us, we had a very good side.
“But, overall,” recalled a very different Wenger from a very different age, “we were just too strong for them on the night.”
Arsenal: Santos (ankle), Coquelin (hamstring) Vermaelen (calf), Wilshere (ankle), Gibbs (groin), Jenkinson (back), Diaby (hamstring), Sagna (ankle).
Swansea: Tate (broken leg), Bodde (knee)
Thierry Henry is playing against Swansea for the first time. He has scored against every team he has faced in the Premier League
Swansea are unbeaten in their last three games and the highest position they have been is 10th this season.
Swansea beat Arsenal 2-0 home and away in the 1981/82 season
Swansea still have to play five of the top seven at home this season.
Arsenal have had more shots cleared off the line than any other team this season - 9
Robin van Persie has scored 19 goals in his last 19 away games in the Premier League.
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