On the hottest day of the year at Shenley, Bacary Sagna cuts a summery figure, the weather – along with the colourful attire of many of the gunners squad – is the first sure sign that we’re getting near to the end of term at Arsenal’s base camp, and the French right-back will soon have time to reflect in full on a whirlwind first season in England that has seen him rise from ‘Inconnu’ to ‘Renomme’ within months.
It’s with precisely this intension that the official magazine has ventured into the Hertfordshire countryside today – and, over a much-welcome glass of chilled water, the braided fans’ favourite sits…
…down to discuss the ups and downs of a hugely eventful ten months in north London.
When ‘Bac pitched up at Arsenal from Auxerre in July, there was little fanfare outside of the Club despite the excellence he had displayed for several years in Burgundy. it was perhaps understandable in a summer that saw the media largely preoccupied with all matters Thierry Henry-related. So it says much that, ten months on, the 25 year-old is recognised as one of the most important cogs in Arsene Wenger’s machine, and has also been named by his peers as the Premier Leagues star right back in the PFA Team of the Season. It’s not even as if he steadily grew into his role as 2007/08 progressed – from the first time he pulled on the famous red and white, he has carried himself with all the air of somebody with several years at the Club under his belt.
Was it a surprise that he bedded in so quickly? “No, because my team-mates and everyone else at the Club did a lot to help me adapt and helped make it a good year for me. They accepted me quickly and I felt included, which made me feel confident,” he explains.
“And it was very important and useful to have a full preseason with the squad and the coaching staff. The Austria trip helped all the players who had arrived to get to know the squad, to learn some tactical things and get used to the team.
“l wanted to ioin Arsenal a lot, that’s another reason why l think l settled quickly – and I was well aware that you had to have a fighting spirit in this league and after that you can play football. You have to be good technically too but if you don’t have the fighting spirit you might struggle.”
So to Bac’s competitive debut – that pressure- cooker of an opening game against Fulham, in which late goals from Robin van Persie and Alex Hleb snatched victory from the jaws of what could have been a damaging early defeat. The new right-back himself was noticeably unflinching in the Ece of adversity – calm, composed and helping to set up wave after wave of attacks down his side in the second-halt Nerves did not – could not – come into play.
“I wasn’t nervous because l’d played in the Emirates Cup a couple of weeks before, which helped me to acclimatise to the stadium and feel confident,” he says. “It was good to get a taste of the atmosphere, to know the fans and the pitch, before the season started. So in the first game it was not so difficult for me. Maybe the Fulham match was the catalyst for our season, because we were losing and gave everything to come back. We then had the confidence to know we could do a lot this yean even though we had lost some players in the summer and were very young.”
Crucial to Bac’s early success was the way in which he slotted effortlessly into the Gunners’ style of play – joining the left-sided Gael Clichy in playing almost as a winger when Arsenal were on the front foot, but showing the stamina and nous to be back in position when it mattered. Perhaps, given that he made a dozen assists the previous season for Auxerre, the onlooker should not have been surprised – and he admits that this way of playing suits him, and has led to improvements in his game.
He notes: “I played with a bit more restriction at Auxerre and wanted to push myself even further in this country. We are a young team, all fighting for each other and we play with ambition. It is important that the right back and left-back defend well first, but if we can make a difference going forward we have to do it. Here at Arsenal we play freely, we play our game and that’s it, we enjoy it when we are on the pitch and that makes all the difference.”
Has his attacking play improved this season? “Yes, I think I have become more decisive going forward, making the final pass. I want to go forward but to the end, making it count when l get there. I know l still have to improve all round though and will give everything to do it.”
One such decisive moment springs particularly to mind – when, early in Arsenal’s 3-1 win at the City of Manchester Stadium, Bac overlapped superbly, beating two men before cutting the ball back from the byline for Emmanuel Adebayor to open the scoring. Such adventure was a familiar sight but the end product was particularly devastating.
Returning to Bac’s impressions of his first season, we move on to the subject of his first north London derby -in which Arsenal answered another set of stem questions with that magnificent second-half fightback at White Hart Lane.
“It was my first derby like this, and it was screened on French TFL” he remembers. “There wasn’t really a big local derby for Auxerre. Paris St Germain v Marseille is the only game on that level in France. The fans are not so passionate in France, they don’t show their love for football as readily while in England people live for it.
“Obviously the Spurs match was a great game for us, coming back after going behind and showing everyone our spirit. My most similar game previously was probably in the UEFA Cup for Auxerre against Ajax. We lost 1-0 away and had to win at home – we went 1-0 up, they came back so we had to score twice and we did it.”
Arsenal were on a roll after that sunny afternoon with the neighbours, winning their next eight games in all competitions and still being unbeaten when Manchester United came to town on November 3. William Gallas’ late, late equaliser provided further proof that the side was made of strong stuff.
“Manchester United were dangerous from the beginning to the end,” remarks Bac. “Their forwards showed that they can make the difference in all times in particular. But in that game we showed that we could match them and that we didn’t need luck to compete against them.”
The skippers late intervention was characteristic of the Gunners’ unwavering belief that a game had never drifted away – an attribute that remained even in some of the darker days that would follow later on in the campaign.
Bac agrees: “Everyone was confident and we knew that even if we were losing, at half-time or any other time, we could come back. Around that time we knew we would win, game after game – confidence is even important to a team and this year we had it.”
Game after game, result after result – bar aberrations in Seville and Middlesbrough, things were working out nicely for the men from Emirates as the busy Christmas period, which itself was negotiated relatively smoothly approached. It was the first taste of festive football for a man who had plied his trade exclusively in France before the season iust gone – but, unlike a lot of foreign arrivals, he embraced it thoroughly.
“Well, it was the first time I’d played on Boxing Day” he laughs. “But it wasn’t so bad, because my family came to me for Christmas. The volume of games was ok too because l’d played for Auxerre with UEFA Cup, League and French Cup in the space of a week before, so it was similar on that count. I actually think it’s better to continue during Christmas and to then have a better, longer break in the summer. You need most of your rest then so l’d rather not have a short break at Christmas.
Into 2008 – and Bac points to a turbulent, traumatic afternoon at St Andrews as a real, sharp turning point in the Gunners’ league campaign. The events surrounding Eduardo, not to mention the dramatic end to the game. hardly need expanding upon here.
“Birmingham was a strange game and a strange time because after Eduardo’s injury things weren’t the same – we lost something, we were less confident and l think it affected everyone,” he admits. “We used to think back to that game – Manchester United then joined us at the top of course and l think our confidence dropped, our game changed. I think we lost some patience on the pitch from then on and wanted to do things too quickly.
“You can’t forget something like Eduardo’s injury – it is difficult, you are all living together, you are playing together, so this affects the entire team; We took time to pass through this difficult period and over that time we drew a lot, four times in a row in the league.”
It is a refrain echoed by many of the Arsenal squad. There was, however, a significant bright spot still to come, in the form of a magnificent night’s work in Milan. Bac’s first Champions League campaign made a considerable impression on him, despite the frustrations of watching it shudder to a close from the sidelines at Anfield. He, and the team, took considerable positives and learned valuable’ lessons.
He states: “lt was fantastic to win against Milan, a side that had experience of winning the Champions League. In general, the games in the Champions League tend to be tighter, closer – all the teams are of a good quality, we played against good sides and we did well. We could have won the tournament, but we know that football is so strange.
“In the Champions League the football is a bit different. It’s not quite that teams are waiting for each other to make a mistake, but nobody is expecting a mistake from their opponents so that’s why the games are more closed. I think this season we were perhaps playing our football too much at times, and maybe we have to learn to wait and close things out – I speak about the match at Liverpool of course.
We have to learn, and I think everyone has learned, this season that we need to be more focused after scoring a goal. So it’s good for the future that we have this knowledge now.”
February and March were a strange, mixed time both personally and professionally. Bac had played through the Birmingham game and the Milan tie with a shadow hanging over him, cast by the tragic death of his brothen Oman just a week before the Italians came to Emirates.
Much like Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, who was understandably lauded for his Champions League performance against Liverpool a few days after his mother had passed away, Bac showed remarkable strength of character in performing at the highest level so soon after his loss. A month later he darted in at Stamford Bridge to score the first goal of his professional career- and an emotional celebration, arms aloft towards the skies, told much about what he had been going through.
Candidly, he says: “It was – still is – a difficult time for me, but I have to live with it. I’d promised my brother that I would score a goal one day and when I did he couldn’t see me. It was difficult but when on the pitch you have to be professional and just think about the game.
“l saw the Chelsea v Liverpool game and I knew Lampard was living a difficult moment – it is difficult for everyone who loses someone because you can’t do anything, you can’t change anything. So as I say, you have to live with it, and go forward.”
The Chelsea game proved doubly difficult for Bac – an ankle injury forced him from the fray after 72 minutes, inviting Arsenal’s opponents to capitalise on the defensive reshuffle that followed and curtailing the right-back’s season to boot. He is philosophical about that, but admits that being forced into the stands for the season’s gripping climax was more than a little taxing on mind and body. The Gunners were still in with a shout on two fronts at the time of his injury, which came as an untimely blow to the Club.
“You just have to accept everything in football – you know it’s possible to be injured at any moment and that’s what happened to me. it’s getting much better now and I hope to come back stronger” he muses.
“But it’s so difficult to watch when you can’t play – it’s more stressful, every time the opponents are coming near your goal it’s hard to watch. During the Liverpool game I was getting small patches on my arms, like a stress allergy, I was going crazy! You just want to be out there helping your team, playing football. That’s our job and it’s hard when you can’t do it.”
With the season now over, many eyes are now turning to Euro 2008 – and, had it not been for his injury, you’d have put good money on Bac being involved in the French squad at the very least. After all, another of his many landmark achievements this season came in the front of a first cap for the national team, gained in Slovakia in August and added to against the Faroe islands two months later. Hopes of appearing in the final shake-up for Raymond Domenech and company next month, though, appear ill-starred.
“I don’t think I’ll be fit enough to go this summer,” he reveals. “I don’t want to rush back and make it worse – I need to rest and come back fully fit next season. The’ France medical team have seen my scan and it was quite bad, so if they are sensible they will let me have a rest.”
Not that this should indicate any lack of commitment to the French cause – his pride at being involved in the setup this season is palpable, and when he looks ahead to next season and states in no uncertain terms that “I want to be the best”, there is no mistaking that deposing Sagna as France’s first-choice right-back lies high up his priority list.
For now, the mantle of top Premier League right-back is not a bad one to be wearing. Bac makes it clear that to gain the vote of his fellow professionals was a huge honour – although he admits that his own first choice would have been Belletti, a name that is enough to bring most Gooners out in the kind of hives that he spoke about earlier.
Speaking to Bac now, the improvement in his English since the close season is considerable. He has been taking lessons assiduously -although is having some time out this summer before picking up again next season – and the dividends are obvious.
Has it helped him enjoy the London life? – “l‘ve been learning, getting better day by day, speaking with English people and picking things up,” he says. “I’m trying to do more things by myself in English rather than asking people to do them for me, because that’s theway to get better and feel at home in this county; l like it here a lot, l feel good in London and hopefully soon I’ll speak the language fluently. l live near to the training ground, it’s nice and quiet. When l get time off I’ll go out shopping, walking, enjoying my surroundings, You can meet a lot of people from different countries and cultures in London and learn a lot.”
Much of his summer, though, will be spent in his parents’ homeland, Senegal, where he plans to relax with his family and girlfriend before returning to the Club feeling fit, refreshed and with a certain amount of what you sense is unfinished business. There will inevitably be some changes in and around the Gunners squad – the departure of Mathieu Flarnini counting for one – but is he confident that 2007/08 can be built upon?
“l’m sad Mathieu is leaving because he is my friend and I wanted him to stay – he has energy, fighting spirit and scored some goals. But we showed this year when Thierry Henry left that players could take his place and shine, so why not again? Mathieus a very good player but nobody is irreplaceable and even if I think he was our best player this season it doesn’t mean somebody else will not step up.”
He has no doubt that a slightly greater ruthlessness will make all the difference next time around – and the glint in his eyes suggests that, already, he is eyeing the hunt hungrily.
“We have to be killers, we have to believe we can win everything,” he insists. “That’s the way to improve personally and as a team, and it’s the way to show everyone how good we are.”
Bacary Sagna may be instantly recognisable for his blonde locks – surprised tongues were wagging considerably when a hairdressing mishap, which he still relates with much laughter, caused him to shave all of it off before the Sunderland match in October – but even they cannot deflect the attention from the remarkably consistent, adept performances of his debut season, He may talk fervently of showing Arsenal’s quality to the world – but it speaks volumes that, where his own abilities are concerned, there is barely any more convincing to be done.