You came in 2007/2008, and I thought Arsenal were really unlucky not to win the league that year, so many unfortunate incidents happened. Arsenal finished third with 83 points, which was a record at the time. Why do you think the team fell a little bit short that year?
First of all, I didn’t expect the team to do so well in the first year. I knew we had a good team and we started the season really well – we were all having fun while we were performing and we were outplaying every single team we faced, even United struggled to beat us. I believe we had the best team in the League and I think we should have been champions, but maybe – we were too nice. We didn’t have a bad side and we didn’t have any nastiness in the side.
In football, you need to identify parts of the match where you need to consolidate, dig in – there are always moments like this in a game. You have to manage games. You have to be smart. Sometimes you have to stop playing, and if you have to defend for 10 minutes, you have to defend for 10 minutes no matter how boring or ugly it can be. The most important thing is winning, you have to win first.
We were having fun. We were a bunch of friends having fun and the title race in our favour for quite a long time. Everything was good. From the minute we lost Eduardo – that season he was flying, he was banging in goals – we had the feeling that something was missing.
Rather than reacting, we slipped. We were playing games which we should have won and we had big injuries in the squad. I injured myself in March against Chelsea and the team became less stable with other injuries. Our confidence started to drop and before you know it, the other clubs are right behind you.
United and Chelsea had the experience of winning the title and they handled the pressure better than we did in this period. When you are chasing the team at the top it is always easier, because you know what you have to do. At some point we started looking back at who was chasing us, and we lost too many points.
Were you surprised how quickly you adapted to English football?
When I watched football I analyse the game and learn a lot. I’ve done this for most of my life and I became I would study my performances and also that of my teammates. I used to watch all of the Arsenal games in France – they were my favourite team and I watched every single player in detail – I was a big fan and an even bigger one when Adebayor signed for the club.
I used to analyse the movement and the intensity. I used to learn by watching the team, so when I first came I was lucky and fortunate that half of the team could speak French because my English was good, but nothing compared to my native language. It felt like joining a family – it didn’t feel like I was leaving home – so many of our players spoke French.
At the training ground I used to speak French and English. I felt good. Everyone welcomed me to the club with open arms. Pat Rice played a very important part in my integration because he was a legendary right back. He treated me like his son. We would always have a word before matches. He used to come to me and talk about the players that we’d be facing because I didn’t know any of them apart from big players and give me special advice.
Before games he used to give me feedback on every player. He gave me confidence and I felt great having that relationship with him. He played a really important part in me settling into the club so quickly. Not only him but Gallas, Clichy, Adebayor. I tried to learn English as fast as possible so I could speak with all of the players, and things seemed to fall into place.
What did you think was missing from the Arsenal team of 07/08 and the other teams you played in that stopped you from winning major trophies with Arsenal?
Maturity. I was 24 and I was probably one of the oldest in the squad. At some point we needed one guy to say, ‘now we stop playing, we need to dig in and hold onto what we have or not concede for 15 minutes.’ We needed to make that commitment on the pitch. The coach can’t come into the middle of the pitch to tell us – he can only communicate from the side.
We lacked some nastiness in our game. We should have been more aggressive, cynical maybe. We needed a little bit of ugliness in our play. It’s not an easy thing to say, but we were too nice, too humble, and we were too honest.
We wanted to be successful; we wanted to win. There are always periods in matches where you need to smart, key moments. If you don’t realise when these moments are happening, they will come back and haunt you. That’s what happened.
The Birmingham game is a good example of this. We were beating them 2-1 and then things went downhill. When William stayed on the pitch at the end of the game, that brought a bit more tension to the squad, and it was quite difficult for us to react because we were not used to being under so much pressure.
Everyone started blaming him and there were a lot of arguments because we didn’t win the game. There was unnecessary tension following this incident and slowly we slipped into a bad run (Arsenal drew three and lost to Chelsea following the game at Birmingham) we didn’t want to experience, and we couldn’t stop it.
What was Arsene Wenger like in that period?
He always stayed very close to the players. He always tried to be positive and give the players his confidence. He had so much faith in the group. We would always talk; before training, after training, he used to come to speak about anything.
He had full confidence in the squad. After the Birmingham match, he was positive that we would be able to recover from the situation. When you lose a player like we did with such a horrible injury, as a player you feel guilty because we wanted to do it for him as well as Arsene. We tried everything, but, unfortunately, we lost something. I can’t put my finger on what it was.
We were a bit shocked that we failed, and we knew Manchester United were closing in on us. It was a real blow to lose Eduardo, I think it stayed in everyone’s mind.
Personally, I lost my brother, which was another blow. Everyone knew something happened to me, and slowly you start being affected by it differently.
We didn’t react. We couldn’t react. We were thinking maybe we can come back to the form we had before the match against Birmingham, but we didn’t. We only lost three games that season and if we had turned some of those draws into wins, beaten United once, we would have won the title. It’s hard to analyse. It’s so difficult to identify why we didn’t finish as Champions because we had the best squad.
The club were under huge pressure to end the trophy drought. In your final season we won the FA Cup and ended that period. Can you describe your emotions?
It was quite difficult. It was difficult for the team to try and think about the positives and remove all of the negative thoughts and the pressure that was building everywhere. We tried to our best, but the critics were always there. We were close to doing it in the 2011 League Cup final against Birmingham, again! We failed and it was a big, big, big disappointment.
I think sometimes you have to focus on one target and we were thinking about the Champions League, we were thinking about Premier League, we were thinking about the cups, and it’s really hard to fully focus and make a decision on which one to target because there were so many games.
We were tired. We needed freshness. This is why today teams like Manchester City can compete in all competitions because they have a massive squad.
Maybe our mistake was to try and be competitive in every competition. Unfortunately, when you have 60 games to play, the human body can’t take it. We tired to give 100 percent in every single game. I’m not sure it was possible to compete for every trophy with the squad we had. Nowadays it’s possible because you have so many players for any situation.
Back in the day, we had an amazing squad, most of the guys were really strong, but really young, and physically I think at some point we dropped. We were a bit tired, especially in the first year, and every time around Christmas time we dropped some points, but physically we used to still win a lot.
There’s a brilliant picture of you where you’re on your knees, and it looks like you might have been praying at the end of the game, and then Arsene comes over and gives you a kiss.
I don’t know how to analyse that day because I knew I was leaving the club, I knew I was going to leave, I already made my decision, the fans were singing we want you to stay. After 10 minutes we were 2-0 down and then I thought about it, I was thinking about the seven years I’d spent at the club, and I felt really down during the game, it didn’t really show but I was not at my best, knowing I was playing probably the last game for the club you love heart breaking.
Luckily, we managed to come back. That gave me a bit of strength. Luckily, we managed to win the game, and to me, I wouldn’t know how I would have felt if we lost the game. I had too many emotions mixed in one game, and it was the beginning of the end of a life my Arsenal family. The result was what I wished for the most before the match started, I didn’t want to leave without anything.
I know we could have done a lot better; I know we could have won the Premier League or more cups, but at least I won something with the club I loved before I left. I wish I could have done more and been more successful. To be part of that story, winning the FA Cup in 2014, these are the things that you think about when you retire.
You were a fantastic servant for Arsenal. After seven years, you joined Manchester City. A lot of Arsenal players joined Man City during the period that you were there – did that influence your decision to go there?
No. I reached the end of my contract extension. I signed a contract extension after my first season and stayed on the same terms of six years. I never complained, I was happy. At some point, maybe six or seven months before the end of my contract, the club made me a new offer. I didn’t understand why they didn’t come before. I didn’t understand in my head why they didn’t approach me before because I believe I deserved it. They came late, and I couldn’t understand why.
The mistake I made was to close myself off and not to ask questions to the board about why they delayed offering me a new deal. Maybe I needed some more love. It was a tough day because I was trying to find a solution. I was trying to speak to the club, my agent was trying to speak to club for months. In the end, the only thing I could have done was make up my mind and move on and this is what I did.
Arsene Wenger got involved later, but for me it was too late because when I made the decision it was final, and it was a really difficult decision. I was fully focused on being an Arsenal player and I didn’t commit my mind to any club. It was difficult for me to move abroad because I didn’t want my family to move to Italy, for example, because it’s a different environment, it’s a different language, and my kids were speaking English.
My option was to stay in England, and in England if you leave Arsenal you don’t have many options that are better. While I was there, I was considered one of the best right backs in the league (Sagna was named in the PFA Team of the Year 2007–08 and in 2010–11). I could see only one team where I would have been fighting for my position, and I had to compete every single day because you had so much competition at Man City. I thought that the challenge of fighting for my place in the team at 31 would make me play at the top level for longer.
When you move to a new club, you have to start from scratch. You have to fight. I had to compete against the vice-captain of the club in Pablo Zabaleta, someone who’s been a good servant for Man City. It was a challenge for me and it was the right move. I heard I left for money, I heard many things, but I always say the same thing to people who think I left for the money. Do you think that I will have stayed on the same contract at Arsenal for six seasons if I was motivated by money? You could look back at players from the past 20 years and you won’t be able to find another.
I never thought about money. I never spoke about money in my life. I think it was the right move for me to go to City, and I really enjoyed City. The pressure was difficult because when you come somewhere where you are new, you have to make your own way. It was difficult, but I had an amazing experience. I’m very pleased with the welcome I had at Man City. Even today, the relationship I have with the club is fantastic.
Was there a difference in mentalities of the players at Manchester City and Arsenal?
There was a massive difference. There were more players – we had two players for every position. Each player was monitored individually before training started and had his own routine. Man City already adapted this mindset, now everyone does it. At Arsenal, we were different. We were having coffee upstairs 10 minutes before the beginning of the training session. It didn’t mean we were not fully committed, but nowadays players are doing personalised routines before the session starts.
Communication was great at City, but not like it was at Arsenal, where I had a really easy going relationship with the players and we spoke the same language, English or French.
At City we had Spanish, English, French, Italian, so it’s a bit more challenging for the players to communicate, not that it’s not possible, but it’s a bit more difficult. I was lucky and fortunate enough to speak four languages, not just which is why I adapted quite well to the team.
The problem I had was I was joining after playing in the 2014 World Cup. France got as far as the quarter finals, so you join the training sessions 10 days later than everyone else and they have a head start on you. When you move to a new club and you come 10 days after it’s difficult because the pre-season is nearly done.
You’re not in sync with everyone’s habits and patterns that they’ve worked on in the time you’re not there. Everyone is moving and you’re a bit lost, and I was a bit lost. When I first joined, I didn’t know where to position myself and there was already a tactical plan. I was late for that and I didn’t know many players in the squad.
The momentum of the group was already set. It was very difficult, and the way I had to defend was totally different from what I was used to. We were not allowed to get into the box and defend and I’ve never defended like that in my life. You need to become a different player, a new player. So much happened in the first year. Sometimes I would find myself on the bench for three games. It was very difficult for me to pick up the rhythm of the game.
When you play every three days, or every week, you keep your fitness. When you have one game every month, or every three weeks and you have to run more, and show more because the coach has given you a chance, it was very difficult. On top of that, when I did play, I was playing against the very best players. I was playing against guys like Neymar. The first league game I played, we had 75 percent possession of the ball, and on one counterattack we conceded.
Everything was difficult. I would mainly play in the Champions League, it was very difficult in that first season. The following season, I went on the full pre-season and I could adapt. I could start from the beginning. I had the most playing time in my second season. But then when I started the third season, I was playing at the Euro’s with France and joined up with the team late. This was Pep’s first season. I didn’t have the season I wanted because I only had two weeks holiday, I was burnt out.
In my first game I got injured, and obviously, there are many more games to play and much more travelling, because there are many clubs in London. It was easy to be a player for Arsenal even though we were under so much pressure, we had easy travels. It was easy for us to go and play against West Ham, we didn’t have to change city, we had many games in London, or one hour away from London so we had some habits that personally I didn’t have when I first joined City.
It was two different experiences; I love both of them but different experiences.
Who do you think was your toughest ever opponent?
The toughest opponent I’ve ever faced was Neymar. He was so difficult to read. I always try to understand players movement to try and anticipate the kind of player I’m facing, but with Neymar it was impossible to read him. His change of direction, he’s very light, so he’s sharp, very fast in the first couple of metres. His technique was amazing too and it was so difficult whenever he played – you could never read what he was going to do.
Who do you think was the best player you played with?
My favourite player that I ever played with was Santi Cazorla. He was magnificent. He has an amazing education of football, a great mentality, always positive, always smiling, his technique is unbelievable, right foot, left foot, he could do whatever. If he has to play one touch he will play one touch, he would do whatever the situation was needed. He was decisive and would make the other players around him shine. He’s pure, and he’s very genuine as a person, just like he was as a player.
Did you have a favourite manager during your career?
I was very close with Arsene Wenger and I would say that he was my favourite manager. He is someone who played a really, really important part in my life and for me, we had a good spell together. He used to be a father figure to all of us. He was brilliant with me when I lost my brother and always tried to use this psychological aspect when approaching any player. He used to understand every player’s situation, every player’s mindset.
On a personal level, he understood me perfectly. The season after I lost my brother I played okay but I wasn’t myself. I’m sure that at some point, my performances meant that I didn’t deserve to play but he still showed confidence in me that saw me through. It was always enjoyable in his company. We used to speak about football all day. He was also always so positive - he’s someone special and Arsenal were very fortunate to have someone like him.
Mikel has said publicly that he’d love Arsene Wenger to be closer to the team, would you like to see that happen?
I would love to see Wenger coming back to the club. I think combined with Mikel, Arsenal can achieve something amazing.
It is a shame that Wenger hasn’t been back yet to The Emirates but I can understand after 22 years it might be difficult for him to go back home – to go back home but not own the place. We need to remember that he played a big part in the build-up of the team so it will probably be difficult for him emotionally to go back because he has so many memories. In time, eventually it will happen. I hope that it can happen soon so he can go back and support the team.
You’ve talked about your special relationship with Wenger. How did it feel to win that FA Cup trophy under him and end that barren spell Arsenal went through without winning a trophy?
There is a picture at the final whistle of Arsene kissing my head. When I think about that picture, it means so much to me. It is pure love and I remember feeling so grateful for that day. Especially as it was a game that we were losing and we managed to turn it around. I remember that we really wanted to win that trophy for him as he would always help us and take the blame whenever we failed.
When we won the game, I was happier for him then I was for myself to be honest. In general, I was happier for the club than for myself. I was happy of course, but number one, knowing I wouldn’t be an Arsenal player a few days later, it was so special for me for the club to get that silverware.
Let’s talk about this Arsenal team now, obviously Mikel Arteta is in charge, a guy that you played with. Did you think he showed the qualities that we’re seeing from him now, could you tell he was going to be a manager?
I could always tell that Mikel was going to be a great manager. I used to watch games with him. Whenever there was a big Barcelona game or another big game, I used to go to his house as we lived just five minutes away from each other. You could see from then even that he was approaching the game so practically. He would analyse the tactics, whether they’re going to play 3-5-2, or 4-2-3, guessing where each player was going to play and how each player would need to adapt their role during the game. He was already speaking practically. I used to tell him that he needed to relax and that I just came to watch the game!
You could feel the he had a real passion and desire to understand the game and he was already always analysing every situation, always talking about what should have been done, or always trying to add something, to do something. After all, he was a captain for a reason. After that, I think he was always working towards becoming a coach.
How do you think he’s doing so far at Arsenal?
I think Arteta is doing an amazing, amazing job at Arsenal but I’m not surprised at all. Of course, when you become a coach you have some stick, you have hard times. Arteta has had his hard times and he’s going to have more but he’s already shown that he has the mental strength to stick to his principles. He’s stuck to his young players even when criticism was high and now we’re seeing the benefits. He never changed his mind set and the way he wants the team to play. I’m not surprised to see him succeeding.
When you were there, Arsenal qualified for the Champions League in each of your seven seasons. Do you think Arsenal are going to get back there this year?
I would love to see Arsenal back in the Champions League. I was very worried at the start of the season because everything seemed to be going wrong. I was wondering how they would cope with the pressure because after three games, they were sitting bottom of the league. That would have played on their mind but Arteta helped them stick together as a team and now you can see the results - they are all fighting for each other. They understand each other perfectly. If they manage to keep the same spirit then they will qualify for Champions League. And if they keep going, then in four or five years they will be champions.
Arsenal have the youngest team in the league, are you excited about the future with this group of players?
I am really excited about the future of this Arsenal team. I would love to know what the team will become. I still believe it’s too early for them to be champions, not that it’s not possible, but they need to get more experience of playing together. But I believe that this is a very good squad and I think they can be very successful in the near future. But in the near future, I don’t believe they can be champions. Not because they’re not good, but because it takes time to build the team – how long did it take to Man City to become the champions? Arsenal are now in the rebuilding process. They are getting there slowly, but we have to be patient.
Is there anyone you would like to single out for special praise in this Arsenal team?
I would single out Bukayo Saka for special praise in this Arsenal team. Honestly, he’s been brilliant for the club and for the country. He’s so young but fearless. He plays with passion, he plays with his heart, he plays with his eyes. He has the temperament where he wants to show you that he is the best, that he is the main man on the pitch, that he will give everything for the club, for the team. This has been a key moment in his career and he has stepped up again this season. He seems to be very humble, and very polite as well.
The defence has been a lot tighter this season. How impressed have you been by Tomiyasu this season?
I really like Tomiyasu. I love his commitment. He fights and doesn’t joke around. He’s there to defend his position, show his desire and dedication to fight for every game. When you join a new team, it is never easy and he seems to have adapted very well, very fast, very quickly. What he brings to the team is great, he is always holding the right position, always giving them 100 percent. He fully deserves the praise that he is getting. To be honest, I didn’t know too much about him before he came to Arsenal but I’ve been very pleasantly surprised.
Lacazette led the line well for Arsenal against Leicester and scored a goal. His contract runs out at the end of the season, if you were in charge would you be doing everything that you can to keep him there, or do you think Arsenal need to look at a different option in the forward area?
If I was Arsenal, I would do everything they can to try and keep Lacazette. When you see the way he’s playing, he’s a good leader, a natural leader, he’s been at the club for such a long time, so he knows the club perfectly. And I think he is doing well, he brings so much to the squad at the moment. So, you want to be able to keep someone like him, Arsenal shouldn’t let him go because he has this vision that the club needs.
Serge Gnabry, he was at the club while you were there, and there are rumours that Arsenal might be able to bring him back. What do you think of that?
I would love to see Gnabry back at Arsenal. I saw him starting at Arsenal so I know what he’s capable of. He’s been developing amazingly in Germany in two different clubs and I think it could be the time for him to come back. He’s a brilliant player, powerful, fast, efficient. He already knows the club, he knows the team, so for him it’s home.
Arsenal play Liverpool in a massive game on Wednesday night. Do you see this game as an opportunity for Arsenal to make a statement about their top four ambitions?
I’m not sure an Arsenal win against Liverpool would necessarily be a statement from the players, they will just want to win because they want to test themselves against the best players. Liverpool are probably the second-best team in the league at the moment. Arsenal will want to win so they can keep building strength and confidence.
It would be a massive win for their confidence and a win would be incredible for their race for the Top Four. It’s not going to be easy but I think they can outplay Liverpool. They managed to outplay Man City so you may say it’s a reference - if you’ve outplayed Man City, you can outplay anyone.
William Saliba is an Arsenal player that’s on loan at Marseilles. Do you think next year he’ll be ready to come and play, and compete for a spot in the Arsenal team?
I’ve watched Saliba this season and his performances have been great for Marseilles. He’s been one of the key players defensively, he’s very calm with the ball, he can play out from the back, he’s very strong, good with his challenges. I think he just needed some time to play. And Mikel understands that. It’s not that he doesn’t like him, but I think at the age of 19 or 18 you need play, commit to playing every single weekend.
He’s not one for staying on the bench, or not wanting to get involved. When you are at Arsenal, you need to go somewhere and play and progress, and this is what it is, so I’m looking forward to seeing him back. He’s certainly progressed in France but the Premier League is a different animal. I think he has the ability to succeed and look forward to seeing him back.
On Manchester City
Let’s talk about the title race. Do you think Man City will go the distance and retain their title?
I think so. They are a serious team; they play every match like it’s their last one. The players have great skill and ability, they are some of the best players in the world and they give 200% every time they step onto the pitch, which is what Pep demands. When you have that mindset and this mentality its really difficult to be beaten. They’ve dropped points, of course, but they are a team of warriors with crazy ability that really understand how to play football. It is the perfect cocktail.
How much credit do you think Pep deserves for continuing to keep the team motivated to keep challenging year after year for the titles?
Of course, the team has reached an incredible level because of the players talent, their effort, desire and skills, and Pep deserves so much credit. He creates an environment where the players have to be perfect professionals; you have to be on time, you have to eat and rest well, the players have to be really focussed on their football. It is intense.
For the players, they can enjoy their breaks before the season and forget about football, but from the minute the pre-season starts, you have to be fully committed and Pep puts every single player under this pressure – it doesn’t matter who you are.
If you deserve to play, you will play and if you don’t deserve to play, you will be on the bench. It’s good to have this pressure. The players know that they have to rest well, eat well and recover well otherwise Pep will be coming for them, so this has a big impact on the players too.
Is there anyone in the Man City team that has really stood out for you this season?
I could praise the entire squad because they’ve all been brilliant, but I’ve really liked Phil Foden’s performances this season. I think he’s shown remarkable maturity for a player that is so young – like Saka at Arsenal – he is never scared. He doesn’t care who is facing – he plays the way that he wants to play and they are examples for any young kids that watch football.
When I watch him play, it’s like he’s been playing for years, but he is 21. It’s very difficult to deliver top-level performances when you’re so young. I started professionally when I was 20, and Foden played when he was 17. Honestly, it’s crazy what he is doing.
Wenger and Ferguson, Mourinho and Ferguson, Guardiola and Klopp. These intense rivalries often bring the best out of each team. Do you think the football were seeing served up from Man City and Liverpool could be some of the best in the Premier League era?
It’s great, but I’m not sure it’s definitely the best in the Premier League era. We have to look back at the incredible commitment and intensity from back in the day, with Roy Keane going up against Patrick Vieira which epitomised the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal in the late 1990s and early 2000s – that was something else. Honestly, it was a war - it was electric. I don’t think people should forget about this period.
We have to respect how good that generation of players were. Those players showed it every single weekend. I’m not saying that the football we’re seeing right now from Manchester City and Liverpool isn’t as exciting, but it’s important to remember how good that period was too.
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