Arsenal’s big summer signing Alexis Sanchez has proved the perfect example of being able to acclimatise to the demand of English football, almost instantly. Less than six months after making his Arsenal debut, the Chile international forward had already racked up 18 goals, and put in a string of dominating performances.
Not all imports can adapt so seamlessly, so quickly, of course. Even the very best of them. Thierry Henry didn’t begin accumulating his record-breaking haul of goals until his ninth outing for Arsenal, while Dennis Bergkamp needed eight matches to break his duck.
So what are the factors that determine how well and how soon a new player integrates into the club? What role does the manager play in making sure his signing settles in?
We spoke exclusively to Arsene Wenger to find out how he helps new players feel at home at Arsenal.
Alexis’s deep desire to play for Arsenal has helped him integrate. What are the factors that determine why some players settle quicker at a new club than others? You have to consider the history of the player first. If it’s the first move for the player from his home country or family, it’s a bit more of a sensitive subject. If the player has already moved away from his country, has already played in some other countries – and we can speak about Alexis Sanchez who has played in Italy, Spain and now here – that helps. The second part is that the move is a reward for what you really wanted. Alexis Sanchez had a few options and he chose us because he felt, ‘that’s where I want to go’. Sometimes when the player moves somewhere, it’s not definitely the choice that he deeply wanted. In Alexis’ case, I think he really wanted to join us. Then the fact that on the pitch, the player meets his needs. In Alexis’ case, he came into a team that plays in an offensive way where he can express his talent with freedom. It’s also worked out well for him, so that helps. Another step is that the team welcomes you with the values that you rate and also that you can feel at home in the team. That means that people inside the squad have a similar culture – we have plenty of Spanish-speaking people and that helps to ingrate new players well.
Off the pitch, of course it’s sometimes a bit less predictable, and more sensitive as well because you need to find the right housing, you need to feel comfortable in your daily life. Your family need to like it as well and your children need to find the right school – all these things that you cannot predict will really work, but we have one person at the club who really takes care of them and he does a marvellous job to help them get that right. When everything fits well, you have a chance to have a happy player.
Even the most talented players sometimes take a while to settle in... Yes, because sometimes it takes them time to adapt to the style of play or to the committed atmosphere and rough challenges of the Premier League. I remember the first time Robert Pires arrived, I told him that he will sit next to me on the bench against Sunderland and won’t start the game. After half an hour he asked me, ‘is it always like that?’ and I said, ‘yes, and it can get worse than that’! It can take time for them to adapt to that.
If a player has a slow start, can it begin to become a mental issue? Thierry Henry said he was worried his team-mates thought he was rubbish in his first few weeks! It can affect players. But a player like Thierry Henry came out of a negative experience in Italy and it took him a while to find his confidence. Once he found his confidence he became the world-class player he was, but he had a kind of traumatic experience before that and once he got that out of the system it worked well for him. Some players like Pires came from a different league and it took them a few months, but he became a world-class player as well. At the end of the day the talent can take more or less time, but a special talent always comes through. That’s why you are not wrong when you buy the player because it can take a bit longer than you wish but I feel that when the decision is right – it’s about decision making and selection of the players on the day of the game – the players with talent will always come through.
How patient can you afford to be as a manager? Do you have a cutoff when you think a player will simply never settle? Yes you always have to question yourself and the players as well, because we are in a competitive world. Sometimes it’s more down to dealing with the physical challenge of the game in England. The atmosphere is always great – the player is never disappointed by the atmosphere because if I was a player today, I would love to play in England. There’s no other country where you could say that. But you can be surprised by the commitment and the physical challenges when you first arrive. Sometimes you think, ‘can these players cope with that?’
What is your role in helping a new player to settle into the dressing room environment? Well you speak to them to see if everything’s going right. I’m an observer as well and on a daily basis I look at people to see if they are happy or not – their body language, the way they interact with other players. At the end of the day when you are a player, you do not want to speak every minute with the manager, you want to speak with your team-mates, express yourself and be happy. I’m more on red alert to intervene if needed, but on a daily basis you have to be happy in the group because they are the players you see every day and I have enough experience to see if it works.
What are the main obstacles new players need to clear when they join a new club? It is the pace of the game in England. The pace of the game forces you to make quicker decisions and sometimes it can take a while for players to react to that compulsory, quick- decision making, and that is important. It can also be that sometimes your family doesn’t settle well and sometimes the climate – people are surprised at how dark it is in winter for example, how cold it is when the wind is blowing, especially coming from southern countries where it’s always nice weather. The climate can influence as well.
What problems do English players face when they join? English players could have more of a problem when they come from a smaller club to this club because of how big the pressure is. They’ve fulfilled a dream because most of the time players want to come to a big club in England, and they could be under much more pressure than they’re used to. It could take them some time to express themselves with freedom so they can display their talent. They go from being regular players at another club to having their position threatened and that they have to face competition from inside that they were not used to. That, of course, can be destabilising as well.
How much help do you give players though? Is there a point when you have to see if they sink or swim? We can only help so much, 99 per cent is down to the individual. We can push them over the line with the one per cent we can give, but 99 per cent is them having the responsibility to make their own life. You have to stand up to be strong enough, to fight, to show that you have the courage and that you’re not inhibited because you’re under pressure, and that’s the difficulty of the modern player. That has increased and the resistance to stress from the young players is immense today because everything is analysed. Every pass you make, every first touch, how far you run, how much you fight, everything. There is a verdict on everything so that kind of stress has increased and it’s much more difficult to deal with than it was a few years ago. Twenty years ago you could lose a game and people would say ‘the next time Arsenal will play better’. Today you lose a game and it is always a crisis. It’s not easy for the players to deal with that.
On the flip side though, is it easier nowadays for foreign players to join, because there is more of a culture of it? Did the first few French players find it tough to adapt to the English lifestyle for example? They were shocked but I think they enjoyed it. When I arrived in England they told me there was no history of foreign managers being successful in England. Since then, it has hugely changed but there was a new experience that was stimulating as well. I believe today it’s easier because you were a bit more isolated when you arrived at first. Today, you’ll always find a player from your country or who speaks a similar language to you.
Has a player ever approached you shortly after signing to say he has made a big mistake, and can’t settle in the country? No. I had players who said, ‘this game is not made for me, it’s too physical, you get kicked, the referees don’t intervene, I want to go back,’ and I said, ‘be patient’. After that, they became fantastic players in England. Sometimes the first contact could be rough, not so much anymore, but 15 years ago, yes.
Have you ever not signed a player purely because you thought he would not settle at Arsenal? Yes. First of all you have to look at the level of education of the player because they have to learn the language. You have to look at their family’s history and whether they’ve ever moved somewhere else, the culture and where the player’s grown up. You hear that he doesn’t like to leave home, things like that. I believe it’s very important because not everybody is exportable without being negative. It’s not necessarily a quality to go to a different country because the target in life is to be happy and some people are happier when they are in their own environment. Some people have that desire to discover other cultures, other places and people, and they will be more happy, so you have to analyse that.
As well as integrating new signings, can it be a challenge to assimilate youth players into the first-team environment? The danger for them is to think, ‘I’ve made it’. But the dream is not to be in the first-team dressing room, the dream is to become a great player and the confusion can be there between thinking, ‘I am a great player now because I’m in the first-team squad,’ and knowing that they’re in a dressing room where they have to show they’re a great player. That’s a massive difference but I think it’s an interesting challenge and you see some players understand that and some players fade a little bit because they become too easy.
Do you treat all newcomers the same, or do some players need more encouragement and help than others?The final step of a player moving into the first team is the meeting of an attitude, talent and character of the manager to make room for him to play. At some stage you have to say, ‘I stand up for this boy on Saturday afternoon at three o’clock because I believe he has the ability to be there’. But of course you never know the guarantee, even after such a long time in the game you never know exactly how a boy will respond to his first mistake, to the pressure of the game but if you want to bring players up, you have to stand up for them.
Do you feel that any potential off-field problems the players have during the first few months are often missed by supporters, and could explain poor performance sometimes? I feel that the job of the fans is not to feel sorry for the players. They want the team to win, they want the team to win in style because they are a lot happier when we are two or three goals clear, so it’s not their job to feel sorry for the players who don’t do well at the start. That’s where the strength of the club is important to say, ‘okay, he was wrong to play him today but believe me he deserves another chance to make us happy later’. The fans accept that and are also proud of seeing players develop. Maybe it’s a bit of an underrated quality and Arsenal is admired all over the world not only because we win games, but because we give people a chance. People all over the world are sensitive to that. It’s not only about stars, it’s also about keeping deep values that are important.
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