Arsenal are a club that must provoke mixed feelings for France boss Roger Lemerre. He was more than miffed when the Highbury side organised a petition against his team’s friendly trip to Australia last November, but, conversely, he knows he owes Arsenal a substantial debt of gratitude for rejuvenating the career of midfielder Robert Pires.
After suffering all manner of problems at previous club Marseille – loss of form, abuse from fans, salacious tittle-tattle in the press, being stripped of the club captaincy for allegedly ignoring the instructions of coach Bernard Casoni – Pires was in dire need of a stable sporting environment and sympathetic employers.
Fortunately, he has found both at Arsenal following a œ5million move in the summer of 2000.
True, Pires needed a little time to settle in at Highbury and attune himself to the hurly-burly of the Premiership. Butby the start of 2001, he had found his feet, producing a series of classic performances on the left side of midfield and cementing a place in Gunners’ hearts by hitting the winner in an FA Cup semi-final against local rivals Tottenham.
However, if Pires looked sharp in the second half of last season, he has cut an even more impressive figure this term. He has been handed a new roving role, an open-ended brief that gives him greater scope to exploit his pace, invention and intelligence. A good call from Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger.
Pires is getting into the opposition box more, has considerably extendedhis influence in the team’s build-up and is thriving on the responsibility.
The Frenchman could not be happier and is already talking of extending his five-year contract. ‘The confidence I had lost has come back in a big way,’ he says. ‘I’m now taking more and more initiative on the pitch, something both the players and the coach have been pushing me to do.’
His renaissance at club level has also meant a shot inthe arm for his international fortunes. Despite helping France capture the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship two years later, he was not a regular starter in either tournament. Some have wondered whether he would ever confirm his massive potential and make the leap from highly talented super-sub to national team mainstay.
Yet the new and improved Pires has done just that. At last summer’s Confederations Cup, he performed so well in central midfield that he was voted Player of the Tournament.
With his new-found assurance there for all to see, he has been in magnificent form in France’s friendlies this past autumn, adding a previously unseen relish for tackling to his craft and celebrating his 50th cap with a fine long-range winning goal against Denmark. Whether out wide or through the middle, Pires has become indispensable for Les Bleus.
‘Players like Patrick Vieira and Pires have developed into the backbone of our new generation,’ says Lemerre. ‘Pires has been excellent lately and has shown conclusively he has what it takes. He is shaping up to be a real star for this team.’
Club Arsenal (Eng)
Born January 29, 1973, in Reims
Previous clubs Stade Reims, Metz, Marseille
International debut August 1996, v Mexico
International caps 52 (10 goals)
Honours World Cup 1998; European Championship 2000; French League Cup 1996 (Metz)