Sport - Jason Cowley wonders what is behind Arsene Wenger

If Arsene Wenger is so Anglophile, why are there no Brits in his team?

In 2003, Jasper Rees wrote a book about Arsene Wenger, later expensively serialised in the Guardian, only to discover that, in effect, there was nothing much to discover about the Alsatian-born manager of Arsenal: he was, and remains, largely unknowable. He never gives personal interviews - one-on-ones, as they are known in the business - and he certainly never spoke to the unlucky Rees. He remains, instead, a master of withholding, of the wry and cryptic communication.

We are encouraged to think of Wenger, because he lived and worked in Japan, as a man of Zen-like restraint and dignity, and as unusually intelligent, at least for a man of football. He is certainly a gifted linguist and, through his knowledge of sports science and nutrition, and with his worldwide network of contacts, he has transformed Arsenal from a venerable and conservative institution into a truly globalised, progressive entity: a model of harmonious racial and multicultural integration.

Yet as the title slips inexorably away from Arsenal, we have come to know him a little better through the fortuitous words of others. This is Alex Ferguson, for instance, discussing the immediate aftermath of Arsenal's 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford last October: "In the tunnel he [Wenger] was publicly criticising my players, calling them cheats. I was told about this . . . so I went out into the tunnel and said to him: 'You get in there and behave yourself, leave my players alone.' He came sprinting towards me with his hands raised saying: 'What do you want to do about it?'" Not much Zen-like calm in evidence on that occasion.

We also know that, according to his old friend and compatriot Gerard Houllier, Wenger has settled well into this country since moving here in 1996. "He looks quite English," Houllier said. "He is made for the English mentality and the English game. At times, I see him as the archetypal British gentleman."

I'm not sure about this remark - because Wenger has always seemed to me to be rather prejudiced against the English. More precisely, he does not seem to rate our players or want them in his team. Indeed, under his guidance, Arsenal has become less an English club, with predominantly British and Irish players, than one with global ambitions that simply happens to be based in London. Most of the time now, there are seldom more than two British players in the team; for the recent FA Cup tie against Stoke City, there was only one, Jermaine Pennant, and he is soon to be transferred. It won't be long before Arsenal plays without a single British player.

When George Graham's Arsenal won the League in 1989, most of the players were from London or Essex and had emerged through the youth ranks. They were, in many ways, little different in background and aspiration from those who were watching on the terraces.

Football fans long to feel empathy with those on the pitch, through whom they live vicariously, intensely. The most committed fan likes to believe, however deluded he may be, that the players are not merely passing through but feel as he does about the club, which is why there is often such a special affinity between fans and those players who have been at a club since early boyhood. Steven Gerrard at Liverpool, Ryan Giggs at Manchester United, Tony Adams, before he retired, at Arsenal - these are the kinds of players with whom fans most share a sense of magical mutuality and recognition.

During his long, eight-plus years at Arsenal, Wenger has signed only four English players - and no Scots, Irish or Welsh. All but one have since moved on without establishing themselves, notably Francis Jeffers, whom Wenger signed for £10m from Everton, his one true gamble on a player from these islands. Wenger was once asked at a press conference why Jeffers, often injured and mostly ignored, was such a failure. "This is what happens when you buy English," he said, smiling. His remark was received with much laughter, but I am not sure that this archetypal British gentleman was being entirely flippant. His actions certainly suggest otherwise.

Jason Cowley is editor of Observer Sport Monthly

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, 1 in 5 Britons could vote far right