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The making of Pascal

Pascal Cygan celebrates his 41st birthday on April 29. Here's a classic interview with the former Arsenal defender, which was first published in the Arsenal Magazine in February 2004.

Arsène Wenger never lost faith in Pascal Cygan.

The central defender signed from Lille in the summer of 2002 struggled, by his own admission, to make a significant impact in his first season at Highbury but his manager always believed the 29 year-old would be an asset to the squad.

The last six months have proved, once again, that Wenger's judgement cannot be faulted.

A glance at the Arsenal team in a selection of the most memorable results this season will feature Cygan's name. The historic 5-1 triumph in Italy against Inter Milan in the Champions League that revived hopes in Europe's premier club competition; the win at Birmingham on the day that the Old Trafford suspensions kicked in; the Christmas victories against Wolves and Southampton that provided the platform for the New Year assault on the title. Cygan played in them all.

“There were doubts about him after that first season,” said Wenger. “Now he has given the answer. Pascal's move to Arsenal was his first big move and it meant there was a huge change in his life. On the field in England you have to adapt to playing the full 90 minutes, there is no let-up, no relief.

“It takes time but Pascal is a highly intelligent boy. He has learned what is needed.”

 

Pascal Cygan

Pascal Cygan

 

Pascal himself conceded that the first months of his switch from Northern France to the North of London were difficult times for him and for his family of wife and two young daughters.

As well as his period of acclimatisation to a new football culture, his family had to get used to a new lifestyle and new language.

“It was a difficult time,” said Pascal. “Half of my mind was on solving family issues and the other half was concerned with Arsenal. I had to deal with looking for a new home here in England, with sorting out a bank, with school for my elder daughter who would sometimes come home crying because she hadn't understood what was happening or being said and I was also adjusting to a new kind of football at a new club.

“Of course it was hard. But everything is now settled.”

Pascal is in good company when he talks of the problems of adaptation to the English game. Thierry Henry was unrecognisable from the player who now enjoys world-class status in his early months at Highbury and Robert Pires also admits to find life in the Premiership a vivid contrast to the French football he left at Marseille.

 

Pascal Cygan

Pascal Cygan

 

“It is much harder than the French championship,” said Pascal.

“It is a lot more physical and you have to put up with a lot of elbows and tough challenges.

“You have to learn to give as much as you take, to look after yourself. There was also a difference between the kind of football that I played at Lille and that of Arsenal.

“At Lille, we had a lot of players behind the ball. Arsenal is different. We play high up the pitch and that leaves the defence with half the pitch to cover.

“You have to get used to that.”

But the brand of football that confronts him in England, though more physically demanding, does have its benefits for Pascal. “The front players don't play like they do in France or in other European countries.

“There, the players often have one touch and they move on and break quickly. In England they keep the ball at their feet and that is often easier for me to play because I am not one of the faster defenders.”

"At Lille, we had a lot of players behind the ball. Arsenal is different. We play high up the pitch and that leaves the defence with half the pitch to cover"

There is little doubt, however, about the result that stands out for Arsenal this season - the win against Inter - and Pascal is proud to have played his part in the triumph that changed the course of the Champions League campaign.

“Before the match, everybody was saying that we were fighting for third place in the group table so the Inter game was one of the most important games of the season so far. Without that win, we might well have been left with just the FA Cup and the Premiership to play for this season.

“It was a memorable night for Arsenal and I was proud to be part of it.”

While he came to terms with the high-tempo and committed nature of English football, the French defender did show frequent glimpses of composure while in possession that has increased the manager's options when it comes to making substitutions.

At various times, Pascal has played at left back and also looked at ease in midfield.The latter should come as no surprise - “because I played alongside Patrick Vieira in midfield for the French youth team,” he recalled.

“Maybe one day I will be asked to play up front in place of Thierry Henry!”

There is, of course, a price to pay when you are involved at a club like Arsenal. Arsène Wenger has thoroughly and painstakingly assembled a squad of genuine quality with cover in every position.

And with cover of that standard comes competition. Few players can assume that their name will be on the teamsheet - as the central defenders like Pascal have discovered. Martin Keown, Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure - the find of the season without question - have all figured this season along with Pascal who, quite understandably feels frustration at his failure to secure a more regular place.

 

Pascal Cygan scores against Everton

Pascal Cygan scores against Everton

 

“It is a paradox really,” he said. “Many people have said I am playing better this season than last but in fact I am playing less.

“It is difficult to accept that I don't play in the big games but I am determined to be in the first eleven.

“It is up to me to fight and to get back into the first team. Maybe the wheel of fortune will turn again in my favour.”

While Cygan may not have reached the status of automatic first choice at Arsenal as a central defender, he has established himself as the number one at Highbury among the players - at tennis!

Pascal Cygan, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, Sylvain Wiltord and Edu were involved in a round-robin tournament earlier this season and the Brazilian Edu, who it is said coached the sport back in his homeland, was the favourite.

But favourites sometimes get beaten and it was Pascal who emerged the victor.

“I won all the sets I played,” he said with a smile of immense satisfaction. Now all he wants is to hear his manager give him the call “in” more often than “out” as the season approaches its climax.

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