Arsenal Mag: Bac Goes Forth

Being, as he is regarded as one of Arsenal’s wisest and most cerebral squad members, it will surprise few to know that, when a collection of Gunners stars donned costumes recently to play their parts in a humorous film with a serious message for Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, Bacary Sagna enacted the role of an owl. A breakdancing owl, but an owl nonetheless. Such theatrics were about as ruffled as his feathers have been thus far in a season that has seen him on top form at both ends of the pitch. When we meet up he’s looking forward to seeing the film for the first time later in the afternoon – but not before filling…
…us in on his latest Club and country-related musings.

Bac is relaxed and happy – it’s evident both on and off the pitch. Father to son Elias, born nearly nine months ago, the 26 year-old feels at peace with himself and his surroundings even if, as he’ll later tell us, it’s not always seen that way back in France. Has fatherhood changed him?

“Of course being a father changes your outlook,” he says. “You have to be constantly thinking as a dad, but it’s not difficult because my son is very lovely and he behaves too – he’s very quite and sleeps well, so everything is fine. It’s the best thing that can happen to someone – just magic. I’m trying to get him into football now, its not working yet but I’ll keep at it! It’s good for a boy to see his father playing football when growing up, because when you are young your dad is like your hero.”
Elias doesn’t have a bad role model to draw upon, To observers of the Arsenal dressing room, Bac is notable for his ability to mix complete professional seriousness with an easy-goingness and good humour that is quite contagious.

This season, he’s adapted to the Gunners’ new 4-3-3 setup and, despite having to change his buccaneering ways a little, seems to have ratcheted the effectiveness of his attacking play up a notch.

“My style has changed this season,” notes Bac. “The team setup has altered and as full-backs we have to defend more than we did before. We have different players in front of us, so we have to adapt and to defend first. Often you are two against one when the opponents attack, so you have to adapt and deal with it – we work on it in training and keep going. It’s a new system for me but it’s a good one – we are free to play the game our way and we look very dangerous against everyone.”

Even if Arsenal’s full-backs are, as Gael Clichy and Kieran Gibbs have also agreed of late, reined in a little more this season, it hasn’t stopped Bac from picking devastating moments at which to make an impact further forward. His attacking interventions may be slightly fewer but they do appear more potent – witness his assists for Robin van Persie against Spurs (twice) and West Ham, along with a cross to the Dutchman that resulted in Cesc Fabregas’ strike at Wolves.

“l’m very happy with that, and if it can ultimately help the team to win something then l’m glad. I’ve been aware that I have to improve and become more decisive f I’ve done that a bit in the last few games and if l can do it more I certainly will. Of course crossing is something I work on, it’s very important for full-backs now to be able to give the final ball. You can go forward but if you then miss your crosses it’s come to nothing.”

He didn’t miss much against Spurs a few weeks back and was indeed one of few players to keep his head in the stop-start build-up to the third goal, gathering himself to continue playing when most in the ground had expected Mark Clattenberg to blow up for an Arsenal free-kick.

‘At first I heard someone whistling,” he recalls. “l’m not sure where from but I definitely heard it, and I think the Spurs players did too. Everyone stopped and when I looked back at the ref he said to keep going, so I went on and Robin scored – it was quite funny really. Sometimes we find ourselves upset with referees but equally now we have to applaud this kind of decision in a situation like that.”

Spurs were ultimately turned over with ease at a rocking Emirates (“It was one of the best atmospheres I have experienced there, definitely, and shows that they can be our twelfth man on the pitch”), but Bac has positive words to say about the overall standard of this season‘s Premier League – without having to refer to the influx of money that has inevitably raised the bar for one or two clubs outside the traditional ‘Big Four’.

“I think that these days everyone tries to play football,” he believes. “You just have to watch English games and you notice it – it means that everyone can beat everyone today. Fulham, to give one example, are doing particularly well – they have changed their style and it was a very tough game there. But l’m thinking about other teams too, because they’re all really competitive now. We saw it was a tough game against West Ham the other week – maybe two or three years ago we’d have won easily, so it shows that football changes and teams evolve.”

So if we take for granted that Arsenal, and the league in general, have improved this season, how can the Gunners get even better? As you might expect, it’s defensive work that comes under Bac’s eagle eye – not surprising given the to-date peerless exploits of the side’s attack.

“We can pass the ball even better I think, and we can win the ball back more efficiently too. We did very well at the beginning of the season in that respect and I think we still are, but we can improve. “It‘s a real collective effort. Our strikers are defending more than they did before, for example – everyone is very focussed on the pitch and wants to keep getting better. At the moment we‘re near the top so we have to keep working hard and things will come more easily”

The 4-3-3 isn’t really being deployed, in this particular way at least, by any other high-profile team in Europe – even at Barcelona, Zlatan Ibrahimovic cuts a rather less mobile, and higher up the field, figure than Van Persie.

“Yes, it’s good sometimes to be different!” agrees Bac. “When you are unique you always look dangerous to others. We can attack with five and also defend with more – it can work quite well, and we just have to make sure we find a good balance.”

Arsenal matters will be returned to, but we segue into France-related issues. The sight of Giovanni Trappatoni – on the television in the training ground‘s canteen is a reminder that we‘re speaking to Bac just days before Raymond Dornenech’s side commences its do-or-die World Cup double-header with Ireland. Following a chastening defeat in Austria a year ago, the French went nine games unbeaten and went some way towards salvaging their qualifying campaign even if Serbia proved uncatchable in their group.

What changed? – Just after Euro 2003 the team switched around a lot. Several players stopped and some new guys arrived – good players like Yoann Gourcuff, Andre-Pierre Gignac and many more. It was difficult to find a good balance for a while and now I think we-‘ve come across it. Even against Austria we played quite well, in truth, but we conceded three goals on free-kicks – now I think all is good because we are more focussed on these situations and look more cohesive.”

Bac has been part of the French squad for two years now – becoming a fixture at right-back since his debut in Slovakia and making 13 appearances in total. He feels at home in the international setup now.
“I consider myself a France player now, as do we all, and feel more confident than two years ago. I know all the players now, I was a bit shy at the start but today I’m fine.”

I wonder aloud how Bac is viewed in France. He hasn’t been entirely complimentary about the French medias’ treatment of foreign-based players in some of our previous conversations, and he is certainly not shy when asked what the French media say about him.

“Nothing. I’m not surprised though. It’s as if they are upset that some of us left the country which is quite crazy. They have made us out to be silly boys who wanted to leave early and thats bad. You know, in France you usually have to wait until you are 22 or 23 to start playing as a regular player they look for the age after that the quality of the player, which is why many players leave to play elsewhere, They don’t realise that I was, what, 20 or 21 when I made my debut for Auxerre, while in other places you might be 17. In France thats rare.

“As it is, I think the media are more supportive with locally-based players. You know when you enthuse about players, like ‘Ah, he did this, this, this and this’? They’ll do that with players who play in the French championship more than with others. You might get ‘he did well’ and thats it.” But if those who leave France early are seen as culprits, surely Bac is not one of the worst? – He was days away from turning 24 when his deal with Arsenal was signed and sealed.

“They want us to stay in the French championship and play there until, I don’t know, 25 and then move, I know what they said about
me when I left – they said I would be on the bench, that I woulcln’t play in Arsenal’s team. But what should I have done? I was playing for Auxerre and then Arsenal, one of the biggest teams in Europe, called me – but I am still expected to stay in France! I’m not that crazy and I’m not scared about trying anything in my life, so I tried and am happy with how it’s worked out.”

And has the criticism motivated you? “Sure – because the newspapers and the radio were talking about me in front of everyone and I didn’t understand why, I preferred to try and improve by playing in a better team rather than by staying at a smaller one. Even if I was sure to play, It was about improving your lob – something that everyone can relate to. But they wanted to put me down – I’ve showed them what I can do, though, and I want to show more again.”

It is a frank interlude in our conversation and clearly something Bac wishes to get off his chest. I put it to him that the French league seems to be picking up picking up it’s own accord regardless of its exports – Bordeaux, Marseille and Lyon have all made headlines in their Champions League groups to date this season, with the latter recently victorious over Liverpool. More generally, the achivements of Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux – they broke Lyon’s epic Ligue 1 title stranglehold last season – also holds fresh hope.

“I think they won it for six or seven years in a row, which is too much,” states Bac. “There was no excitement in that – the French championship was won before it started and that gave people little reason to watch it. Now it has changed, though, and people are happy to see other teams competing.

“Bordeaux are a very good team, quite like a French Arsenal, because they have young players who are starting out and playing together as a team. Gourcuff is a great player and has fitted in very well. And they have Marouane Chamakh too, who was linked with us in the summer, but he’s a very good player who works hard for Bordeaux.”

Back to the English Arsenal, and our thoughts turn to Arsene Wengen Upon joining Arsenal, Bac spoke in these pages about the considerable influence that the boss had wielded in persuading him to become a Gunner. Over two years on, and with Arsene now being the club’s longest-sewing manager, it seems an appropriate time to find out how he makes players tick.

“l think he knows as exceptionally well,” the right-back says. “He knows our characters and he knows how to take the very maximum from players, I think he is aware of each and every personality in the team, and how to talk to different players. He won’t talk in the same way to everyone – maybe some players are more sensitive and others need more motivation and the manager knows which is which.”

Which bracket does Bac fall into? “You can’t ask me that, It’s too difficult! I’ll let other people say. “But seriously, the thing about the manager is that he’s very human – he knows that to be a footballer is difficult, even if it’s still the best job in the world in my opinion. Sometimes it’s hard and you feel less confident on the pitch, but he knows how to give you that confidence back. Players can improve a lot under him, as people too.”

We discuss a few of transformations that Arsene has helped to effect, with the most notable current example being that of Robin van Persie. Not that his star quality was in too much doubt – but the decision to make him the central spearhead of the Gunners’ attacking operations has come to look particularly inspired in recent weeks, regardless of his unfortunate injury sustained this month for the Netherlands against ltaly.

Bac notes: “Robin’s a very good professional, he works for the team and can score many goals as well. Hes a very complete player – I had thought of him as more of a midfield player initially but he has shown everyone that he’s a very good forward and is very important for us. He’s always working hard, a 100 per cent professional, coming into training early everyday to prepare himself and now I think he is getting the rewards.”

The reward that Bac will shortly have for a hard day’s training is his own exclusive screening of the Great Ormond Street Hospital film, via a press
officers laptop. As he makes to head downstairs, he laughs again at the memory of his avian persona,

“It was a very good event to enioy with the boys who were there, and it’s good for us as well to remember unfortunate people in the world. It helps us to stay earthed. Andrey was a shark, Theo was a lion, Cese a rabbit – it was funny and, as you know at one stage I had to dance! It was a good day and if it can help to raise money – that’s great.”

And off he goes, with a laugh and a smile. Mixing a sense of humour with, as we have heard, fierce ambition and some forthright views, he has grown into one of the senior players who create the heartbeat of the Gunners’ on and off the pitch. Such a mixture of seriousness and flamboyance, applied consistently on a squad-wide scale, could just be enough to see Arsenal home to some genuine success come the end of the season. Perhaps Bac will then be able to open up some newspapers from his homeland and read more than ‘he did well’.