Talking Football With....Bacary Sagna: Arteta Is Doing A Great Job
With Arsenal well in the race for a top 4 Premier League finish this season, today we talk with former Gunner and France right back Bacary Sagna.
With only the Premier League to play for, as compared to their top four rivals, do you think Arsenal have what it takes to get back into the Champions League this season?
“I was maybe a bit harsh on Arsenal after the beginning of the season after they lost the first 3 games. Maybe the commitment wasn’t perfect, maybe they had some issues with some of the players having covid, maybe they just needed time because they were all at different stages of fitness, but since then a lot has changed.”
“I think they have shown some character, they’ve shown some great team spirit. They have the right mentality and they have the right commitment. So yeah, they totally deserve to be where they are today, and honestly, if they keep going that way, playing without any fear in them, keeping the strong basics they have at the minute, I think they have a chance.”
“To finish in the top 2 is difficult because you have Manchester City and Liverpool, but I believe they have a strong squad. When they played Manchester City, I thought they deserved to win. They played quite well and outplayed City until the red card at least. It shows the quality they have. It shows the quality and mentality now compared to the beginning of the season.”
What do you feel are the strengths and weaknesses in their race to finish in the top four?
“I think one of the strengths is that they play without any fear, they focus on what they are doing, they know how they want to play. I think Mikel (Arteta) is doing a great job because he gives them confidence and he trusts the players. I think they are giving him the trust back. Hopefully they will manage to get something towards the end of the season.”
“They are very young and I thought it would have been a problem for them to deal with the pressure, but it seems like it had the opposite effect. They play without any fear and no one expected them to be successful but they are, and they play freely, full of confidence.
“I think they totally deserve where they are today, and as long as they don’t concede goals and they keep the basics strong in defence, which for me is the most important, not conceding goals, they will always create chances with (Bukayo) Saka, with (Alexandre) Lacazette, with (Nicolas) Pépé when he comes in, with (Emile) Smith-Rowe, who has impressed me. They have quality players I have to admit.”
When could it be a problem for a club to rely so much on young players as Arsenal do?
“For young players it can be the difficult moments. For example when everything goes against you and you keep losing, or when you have the fans against you. If you are not used to the pressure, it can be a problem that can affect your confidence. But it seems like they deal with any problems that have come their way well.”
“They were in such a bad position after the first three games and they showed they could let that go, and they could get out of those troubles by sticking together as a team. They have shown great spirit and mental strength.”
“Every single game they have played for a long time now has been quite solid. It has been quite composed. All of them have been composed. Everyone in every position is performing at the right level.”
Aubameyang became the latest player to leave Arsenal on a free transfer. What did you make of his recent departure and Mikel Arteta’s handling of the situation?
“Well I was surprised by the events. I always expected him as a captain to be a leader.”
“No one really knows what happened apart from those inside the club, because when things happen inside a dressing room it stays in the dressing room. I’ve heard things, I don’t know if they are true. It’s difficult for me to judge because I was not there.”
“I know for a fact that Mikel (Arteta) is trying to keep the team together, trying to build a group and make the team come first no matter what. He always prioritises the group and the team, so it seems like that’s exactly what he did by selling Aubameyang.”
“I think they want to build something great. They want a group to look forward and move in the same direction, and it seemed like Arteta or the club didn’t agree any longer with Aubameyang. I think they had to make a decision and take responsibility.”
“Hopefully Aubameyang will have a great spell at Barcelona, because he is a fantastic player. It’s a shame for Arsenal, but at the end of the day, the team is more important than any player.”
“We cannot take back what he did for the club. He was a top, top player. This is a part of the football life. You cannot always shine, you cannot always be on top. You can’t always put the cherry on the cake.”
rosdemora / Alamy Stock Photo
Arsenal were reportedly interested in the signature of Dusan Vlahovic in January, but he moved to Juventus. With Aubameyang’s departure and Lacazette’s contract expiring this summer – how do you assess Arsenal’s striking options at the moment and is there a striker you would like to see join the Gunners?
“Well of course that isn’t an ideal situation. If Lacazette gets injured they could be in trouble.”
“But they took the decision to sell Aubameyang, which I thought was a strong decision, it was a strong statement from the club, no one is irreplaceable. The team and Arsenal had to come first.”
“It’s a good time for Lacazette, because it seems like he has an open field for himself now to be working in and be confident and try to do his best, without having the pressure of another striker pushing him. He knows a lot relies on him. I know for a fact that he will give 100% for the club and will give 200% until the end of the season.”
“Of course he reaches the end of his contract. It’s a part of football. I did the same and it didn’t stop me from being fully committed. So next season is another season, and I’m sure they have been looking at many options. They probably have a target and they have to keep going the way they are at the moment, and the most important thing at the moment is to get into the Champions League spot. Then they will have time to think about their options.
“Maybe from the academy? Maybe bring in a player from abroad? They were linked to Vlahovic and he chose to stay in Italy, probably because he already knew the league. He’s been there for quite a long time. And when you know a league you don’t want to leave. Changing countries, changing languages can be tricky.”
Is a ‘Lacazette-type’ strike the optimal for Arteta’s system?
“It’s difficult. He likes to drop deeper and be part of the build-up, but he likes to run in front of the goal as well, so he is quite a complete striker. I see him more as a no. 10 to be honest. He has top quality finishing abilities. It’s hard to find a complete player like him.”
“I would rather they signed a pure no. 9. Someone who stayed in the box. A bit like what Oliver Giroud was. They need that focal point. If i had to take a player, I would take someone a bit like Giroud. But Mikel is in charge and I think he already knows what he is doing and he is doing it great and I’m happy for him.”
Arsenal have been linked with a number of players such as Alexander Isak from Sociedad and Leicester’s Youri Tielemans. What area of the pitch do you think is most important for Arsenal to strengthen this summer?
“Honestly a bit everywhere! They have so many games now, it’s not like in the past. Now they are playing every two, three days, combined with the national team, combined with all these new cups that have been created. And unfortunately the players are human beings, they cannot always perform at the top level, because at some point they will feel fatigue.”
“So as much as he can keep the current players and bring in additions, it would be good for the club. A bit like what Manchester City did. It might take a bit more time for the club, because they won’t invest so much in such a short period of time, but if they manage to keep their young players, although it’s unlikely they will be champions to be in the next year, if they manage to keep the same team for 2-3 years, I think it’s a promising team that has the potential to challenge for the title.”
Your former manager, Manuel Pellegrini, is currently doing really well with Real Betis in Spain. They are sitting in 3rd and are still in the Europa League. How is he as a manager and how would you describe his style of work? What do you believe is behind his success?
“When I first joined Manchester City, it wasn’t the best situation for me to have him there because he didn’t really speak much to me, so I didn’t know where I stood. Sometimes I played and I had a feeling that I played well, yet I found myself on the bench for 2-3 weeks. So it was quite a strange first year for me. But I think he was testing me and demanding more from me, and that’s what I gave. Because I was upset and I remember thinking ‘whenever you give me the chance to play, I will show you what I can do’. And that’s what I did in the following season.”
“He’s always trying to get the best out of each player. He probably did the same at Real Betis when he first joined them. He’s quite relaxed outside the pitch. He gave a lot of responsibilities to the players and counted on them to keep high standards between themselves. I think all the players liked it, because we were quite responsible and knew what was good for us individually.”
“After a while, because I speak Spanish, it was a lot easier for me. He started even picking on me before games. Picking on players I would be facing. And I remember once I was on a bus, we were on our way to play Chelsea and he walked past me and was looking at me. I asked him if he was okay, and he asked me; ‘Should I play you tomorrow? Or are you scared of (Eden) Hazard?’ It was his way of passing me a message that I was playing and that he was counting on me and that I was a big part of the game. Stopping Hazard from playing the way he could play. It was a subtle way for him to show attention to me.”
Independent Photo Agency / Alamy Stock Photo
Do those types of interactions reflect on your performances on the pitch?
“I personally like the connection with the coach. We are all human beings. You want to be able to understand the coach, know what they expect from you. You want to be able to pay back the trust. You need that type of connection. I’m not saying you need to talk to him every time. He doesn’t have to justify himself, but from time to time he needs to just talk to you, to make you feel alive.”
“I think the first year was difficult. Maybe because he had a strong connection with (Pablo) Zabaleta and he trusted him so much. It was fair for him to trust Zabaleta, because he had been at the club for so long and was the vice-captain. He was maybe trying to win my attention and make me understand that I had to compete and play. But everything went well in my second season and I was sad in a way to see him leave the club.”
Phil Foden reached 150 games Yesterday for Man City aged just 21 – how highly do you rate him?
“He has shown his potential. He is already a big part of the best players. He’s fantastic honestly“.
“I think he’s going to give even more. Because when he matures he’ll show more confidence on and off the ball, moving and positioning himself in a different way. He is listening and learning. I think he is a good example for every single kid who begins playing. He plays with full confidence. He isn’t scared. He takes responsibility and seems to be listening and being very composed and very strict in his lifestyle. We don’t hear much about him. He’s a quiet family guy and I think he has what it takes to be successful. And young players should take example.”
Manchester City’s 5-0 win against Lisbon – is this the season City can finally win the Champions League.
“I would love to say yes, but the Champions League is so special, so difficult to win. And especially since they changed the away goal rules. It would have helped us when we played in Monaco a few years back!”
“But I think they have a chance, as always. They have such a fantastic team. They have a great coach. They can beat anyone in world football. They can outplay anyone. But in the Champions League you get this little extra pressure, and because there’s so much expected from them, and when you try to attract something so much, sometimes it stays away from you.
“They were so close to winning it when they played Chelsea and hopefully this is the season for them to reach the final and win. Then you have that special game in a special tournament. There is a different mentality, different effort, different commitment and preparation. They have to deal well with the new aspect, but I think they have a chance”.
What is the pressure like playing for a country like France at a World Cup? You were part of successful and disappointing campaigns.
“When you play behind the generation we followed (Zidane, Henry, Desailly, Trezeguet etc) – it was fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate for France as a team and as a country, unfortunate for us because it was quite difficult for us to reach the level they had been playing at for such a long time. It was not an easy task.”
“Regarding the commitment, I think we were struggling a bit to deal with the pressure. The press expected so much from us. They expected us to be as good as our predecessors. It was a difficult task and we never probably understood each other. At the beginning we didn’t know why they were so harsh on us. So instead of opening up, we just closed ourselves, which was a big mistake.”
“We had some problems but Didier Deschamps has been doing a great job. He’s been building a nice group of people who can live together. You spend 5 or 6 weeks together and only see each other. You have to be able to live together.”
“I think we started well in the 2014 World Cup. We had no pressure. It was a new one, it was in Brazil. Everyone was happy, it was sunny everyday, we had our families around. We managed to create a good vibe.”
“We kept doing it in Euro 2016, where to me, we should have been champions. But you know, crazy post at the last minute stopped me from being a European champion.”
“Apart from that, talking about the group, it was a fantastic group of players. We managed to bring some quality. We managed to bring a smile to French people. I think it was the beginning for what they did at the World Cup, to become champions. For a few years, we were focused, and we all had the same target.”
“When I first came, it was difficult because I was among players with a big image across the world. I had Thierry Henry, I had (Claude) Makelele, (Lillian) Thuram. These were big players. So for me, to make my space, it was quite difficult.”
“Difference in age, they were at the end of their career, nearly, and I was still very young. I had a very, very young family and they were already established as men and as players. So, it was difficult for me to find a space.”
“When we changed generations, it was easier for me. The players I played with, were some players I played with in the French U-21, or players I used to face at a younger age. It was easier for me as we had the same type of desires, habits. It was quite easy for me to get into the team.”
How do you assess France’s chances at the World Cup 2022 in Qatar?
“It was good for them (the French national side) to fail at Euro 2020. Everyone was expecting them to win. Sometimes, a slap in the face is good, it wakes you up and now you know what mistakes you cannot make again. Now they can be dangerous again, because they had the failure at Euro 2020.”
“You still have to have the same coach, the same team spirit to be successful. It seemed like there was a bit of tension in the team and it was a good lesson for them and hopefully they use that experience to stick together and act as a team.”
“I think they have a good chance. Just look at the players. They have (Kylian) Mbappe.”
Who do you think will win the World Cup? Are there any outsiders you think will do well?
“France. 100 percent.”
“I don’t see any other team giving them problems. They have the strongest squad. They have amazing players, offensively and defensively. They are the most solid team as long as they keep their head right and as long as they stick together.”
“Can’t see any other team reaching even the potential (of France).”
“As a player it’s difficult to reach the potential of the French national team because they have such good talent, playing for the biggest clubs. And as a team they play well. If they stick together, defend and attack as a team, they will create many chances and score many goals. If they manage to keep a clean sheet, even better.”
Can Liverpool catch Man City this season or is the title over?
“You never know. It is going to be very tricky for Liverpool to catch Manchester City because they have such a strong squad. They have two teams in one team, basically. They will remain competitive, no matter what.”
“But you never know, it’s football. In football, everything turns very fast.”
“We experienced the same situation at Arsenal in my first year where we were 10 points ahead in March and we ended up on the fourth spot. It’s football, anything can happen.”
“City, they will stay focused. Pep will remind them it’s not done. He will be even more demanding. It’s going to be very tricky for teams to catch up to City.”
Do you think Arsenal’s squad is lacking depth if they get injuries (or more suspensions) given all the players who have left in January? Who will they miss the most?
“They needed to make space. They cannot keep unhappy players. That is the key. You don’t want to bring negativity into the team, they’re only going to bring negativity into the squad. You want happy players who are fully committed to the team.”
“To me, it’s normal. If a player is not happy, why are you keeping him? At the end of the day, he will be moody, he’ll be not fully focused, he won’t be fully committed and you don’t want that. You only want players who give a hundred percent in the match.”
“To me it’s normal that they let some players go. They’ve made space for what’s coming next, hoping that they’ll keep their strong base and keep on winning the way they’re doing at the minute.”
What do you make of Arsenal’s disciplinary issues?
“Personally, I don’t mind as long as it’s done in the right way. It is tactical, it is part of the game. As long as it is not ‘behavioural’ red cards, honestly, I don’t mind, it’s part of the game. It shows the desire they have.”
“I think they have not been lucky. I’m thinking about Xhaka against Liverpool where, to me, he didn’t see the guy. Of course, it was a red card, but it was not intentional. They just have to control themselves a bit more.”
“As long as it’s part and it’s going to the demand of the game. Of course it’s bad to have so many red cards as they are penalised but as long as it’s not a red card because of behavioural problems, to me, it is fine. It is part of the game.”
Which player led by example the best during your career?
“Vincent Kompany had a strong impact on being a good leader. He tried to be close to everyone, tried to communicate with everyone. He has a strong physique and was quite impressive. The way he talked on the pitch and off the pitch, in the dressing room, he was always full of confidence. He was quite macho at a young age and I think it had to play with his behaviour and commitment.”
“If I have to say someone, on and off the pitch, Vincent Kompany.”
“Regarding, on the pitch and technically, I will say Kevin de Bruyne. He was always playing without any fear. He was always pushing us to excel and to be very demanding with ourselves, play forward.”
“It is important to have players like him in the team because he always tries to take charge of the game and has been decisive for such a long time for the club.”
Who is your best friend in football?
“Eliaquim Mangala. We stayed so close and I used to spend a lot of time with him. He’s so humble and he’s not only talking about football, which I like. We have a life apart from that (football) you know. I used to spend time with him, his daughter, his family and we are still very close.”
“He is a genuine person, very, very genuine person. To be surrounded by someone like him, by his example, you want to be an even better person. He’s always tried to be positive, always tried to help people and be a very positive person.”
Who was your funniest teammate during your career?
“The funniest was (Emmanuel) Eboue. He was nuts. Always doing something crazy. Always talking, telling stories. Fantastic person, fantastic player. Only good and fully amazing memories. He was very funny.”
Which teammate had the best fashion sense? Which teammate had the worst fashion sense?
“The worst I would say, and it’s a good thing I would say, is Jesus Navas. He didn’t care, he was just coming to the training sessions. He was trying to be decisive, to progress. But regarding the clothing, he didn’t care and to me it’s a good thing. You have to be coming and be yourself. Whatever makes you happy, makes you happy.”
“The best one, I would say, is Alex Song. He always tried his best to look good. Always tried to look fashionable. He was funny as well. Some days, he was a bit too much, but most of the days he dressed well.”
Most enjoyable activity you can remember for team bonding during your career?
“It was not an activity, it was after a game we won. We went out together to a restaurant. We had such a great vibe and everyone was friends. Everyone was committed. Everyone talked to each other like ‘let’s go to this restaurant and eat together’. For a team to have that spirit is very important. We were like a family.”
“I don’t know if I can think about a team doing that so well. We were like 10-12 guys that would go together. It’s not really common in a football team. I kept this in my head and I think on the next day, we were talking about the night we had and I think that made us closer.”
Of your former teammates, who was the biggest talent you had seen on a football pitch?
“Santi Cazorla. I always say, and I keep on saying it, it was crazy to see him play. The way he can play with both feet. His ability to pass, ability to take free kicks, ability to come out of a difficult situation with the ball. When he was falling, he was staying in control of the ball. He is a genius, honestly.”
“And his joy of playing, you know, he always played with a smile on his face. Never complained, always ready to take charge of the ball and always make the right decision.”
“Santi Cazorla by far.”
“He has a low centre of gravity, so it was difficult to get the ball from him without making a foul. He was skilful, he could shoot, he could finish with both feet. Just a fantastic player.”
The 2010-11 season where you made the PFA Team of the Year. Why was it such a good year for you?
“Because I had a bad World Cup. I just wanted to forget about the World Cup and refocus on my football and it was a strong period of my life where I needed to clear my head and I did it through football.”
“I had a difficult 2008-09 because after losing my brother, I was not so focused. But I managed to come back, and managed to take the positive out of my game. My son was born as well, so off football I could prioritise my life as well. I had a strong connection with my son and it made me forget the negative parts of my life and it was just a joy to be able to go to the stadium and feel his presence in the stands.”
“I felt so strong. It’s stupid to say, but I was feeling like I was the best in the world in my position. When you have that self-esteem, you can achieve great things. This is always what I keep saying to people, don’t put yourself any limits. If you think you are the best, it’s fine. Act with confidence, it’s fine. Play with confidence and act as if you are the best.”
“This was my mindset. I was thinking, you know what, I’m the best in the league. I was thinking that I was part of the best players in the world. You play with confidence, you try stuff you’ll never try and whenever you go forward, you attract the positives.”