Let’s cut to the chase with the important bit first. What’s with the hair? How did Bacary Sagna come to choose such an unusual style – blond braids hanging down like a beaded curtain? Arsenal’s impressive new right-back explains with a smile.
“It goes back years, to when I was still playing up front as a boy. It was a bet with my dad, who said I could have my hair how I wanted it if I scored in the next game. I scored two so went out and had these braids put in. It’s been the same ever since.”
The same, that is, until the other week, when Sagna took out the false extensions to wash his real hair.
“It was the day before the Sunderland game,” he remembers. “Time was tight because we were due to meet at the hotel and I couldn’t get the braids back in. In the end, I left them out for the game and made a mess of it when I tried to put them back in. My mum did it properly when I returned home to France.”
Yes, you can always rely on mum – as you can, it seems, on Arsene Wenger when he plucks out a relative unknown to play for his side. The French manager rarely fails when it comes to earmarking the right sort, Sagna being the latest to thrive in London N5.
What makes this player slightly different, however, is the almost indecent haste with which he has apparently conquered the task, as if settling down in a new country and adjusting to the Premier League were nothing more taxing than buying a baguette.
Helping him along is a simple ethos.
“I’ve tried to give my absolute best in every game,” he says. “Working hard has brought results.”
There is nothing remotely flash in the way Sagna plays, nothing too complicated or intricate that could get in the way. A tough, resolute defender, he gets the basics right first before even contemplating something more elaborate. It’s an attitude and style that has blended perfectly so far with the more expansive qualities that have characterised his new club’s wonderful start to the season.
“Playing in a team like Arsenal obviously helps,” he confirms on the eve of tomorrow’s tasty trip to Liverpool. “The thing you do notice straight away is that it is quite physical. There’s lots of tough tackling in this league. My fighting spirit, though, is one of my main attributes.”
Known as a quiet, discreet, model professional back in France, Sagna showed his steely side when Arsenal came calling this summer. Having only just sold Younes Kaboul to Tottenham, Auxerre were understandably reluctant to let another star defender go. Yet Sagna was insistent.
“Yes, I was determined. It was time to make a move. I’d been there all my life and at 24 I wanted to develop at a club where I could make progress. The chance to join Arsenal doesn’t come along every day. I couldn’t miss out on joining one of the best clubs in Europe.”
Nothing can detract, however, from his time in Burgundy, where Guy Roux’s epic 44-year stewardship became the stuff of legend. Sagna will never forget Roux’s all-pervading influence.
“He was massively important for me, pushing me every day in training, demanding that I give it my best. In my personal life and in my football career he has helped a great deal. He just teaches you how to carry yourself, how to behave on and off the field.”
It was Roux, in fact, who played a big part in Sagna’s decision to play for France instead of Senegal, the birthplace of his parents.
The youngster was still playing for Auxerre’s reserves when his father sent off several letters to Bruno Metsu, the Senegal national manager, asking that his son be considered for the 2002 World Cup squad. A reply never came – something Senegal would come to regret when Sagna made his Ligue 1 debut three years later.
Suddenly, the phone starting ringing. The country of Sagna’s descent was desperate to recruit the talented defender.
Roux, however, had other ideas, as did Rene Girard, France’s under-21 coach. Between them, they phoned Sagna’s father practically every day, imploring him not to let Senegal get hold of Bacary, since both of them thought the prospect was good enough to represent Les Bleus.
And both, as it turned out, were absolutely right. With two caps to his name already, Sagna should push Willy Sagnol very hard over the next few years for France’s right-back slot. Thinking back to the decision, Sagna sighs with a shrug.
“Now I get criticised. When I go back to Senegal loads of kids always surround me and ask why I chose France. But I am a big lad now. I can take it. The advice I got at the time was good.”
It can’t be bad now, either. As a mentor, they don’t come much better than the skilful Wenger.
“The boss has regular chats with me, telling me how I’m doing and how I can improve. He was one of the main reasons I came here – that and the fact that Arsenal are a big club that like to play good football.”
So on to the next two games. Following tomorrow’s trip to Anfield, Manchester United visit the Emirates Stadium in the second part of a test that many see as crucial in examining Arsenal’s credentials as potential champions.
“A lot of people say that, but I don’t agree,” Sagna says. “We have to concentrate on ourselves. No matter who the opponents are, we’ve got to impose our own style of play. That’s the important thing.”
So exactly how far can the table-toppers go, fresh from their 7-0 thrashing of Slavia Prague?
“Why not win the league? Why not the Champions League? We are all young and believe in our hearts that we can do it. If you can’t believe these things when you are young, when can you? You just go for it without any fear.
“I read the newspapers at the start of the season. Everyone said we would struggle without Thierry Henry, that we wouldn’t be able to cope. Thierry was obviously a great player for this club but maybe the players here now feel a little more confident to try things, feel more liberated and relaxed.”
There speaks a man who is utterly comfortable in his new surroundings. After a handful of games, Arsenal feels like home.