Behind the Fort Knox-like exterior of Arsenal's training headquarters, there has been a noticeable change in Arsene Wenger's demeanor this season.
"He is like a man possessed," explained one long-time observer. "The old Arsene is back. He has got the fire in his belly again."
The always erudite and charming Frenchman had appeared to be winding down his Gunners' reign in the relative backwaters of fourth-place scraps and premature cup exits.
For those who recall him as the all-knowing Le Prof whose team played the most beautiful football while hoovering up trophies, it was hard to stomach.
Yet Arsenal's unexpected title assault has coincided with the manager swapping Father of the Bride equanimity for Tony Montana-style ruthlessness.
Wenger started to assert his authority in preseason. Fed up of senior players knocking on his door and demanding new-signing bulletins, the manager ordered players and junior staff to stay away from his office.
"To get to the training pitches from the changing rooms at London Colney, the players used to have to walk past Wenger's door," another source revealed. “Wenger was so sick of being besieged he made them change their route and take the long way round to the pitches. Even after the transfer window closed, he refused to change back.”
The intent demonstrated in, first, bidding 40 million-plus-1 pounds for Luis Suarez and then pulling off the Mesut Ozil coup, has been replicated on the manicured lawns of Colney.
Wenger is said to be stricter and more demanding of his players. An iron fist is increasingly prominent inside the velvet glove.
During the years of ‘Project Youth’, Wenger would go to great lengths to protect his players in public, even to the point of farce.
There has been a subtle change this season. There was no attempt to defend Jack Wilshere’s one-fingered salute to Manchester City fans last weekend, which earned the midfielder a two-match ban.
With 18 months remaining on his contract, vice-captain Mikel Arteta might have anticipated talks opening on an extension to his deal. There has been no movement from the club. Wenger is biding his time. “He is more ruthless this season, almost like his old self,” the observer added.
The Frenchman has refused to get sidetracked by his own future. Goal understands that an agreement on a two-year contract extension, keeping him at the club until 2016, has been in place for two months. Wenger's focus is on maintaining his team's progress.
With Manchester United a diminished force following Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement and Chelsea and Manchester City rebuilding under new managers, the Gunners are perched at the Premier League summit.
Wenger senses Arsenal could be on the verge of something special, more so even than when previous title challenges ignited before eventually floundering in 2007-08, 2009-10 and 2010-11.
The flair and creativity we associate with all Wenger’s teams is as conspicuous as ever. It is now supplemented by a solidity and resilience mostly absent during the eight trophy-less years.
|The whispers behind the scenes are that Arsenal will make concerted moves to land a big-name striker in the notoriously difficult January window
The missing piece in the jigsaw is an A-list attack leader. Olivier Giroud has led the line manfully this season but Wenger knows that the Frenchman needs marquee assistance.
The Frenchman has never been one to bow to public opinion, particularly when it comes to swimming in the shark-infested waters of the transfer market. Like Frank Sinatra, he does it his way.
However, the whispers behind the scenes are that Arsenal will make concerted moves to land a big-name striker in the notoriously difficult January window.
Up until a few weeks ago, with availability limited and big clubs unwilling to sell in mid-season, Wenger felt a loan deal for a forward was the most expedient option. Now, a shortlist of five marquee strikers has been compiled as the manager prepares to spend up to 30 million pounds on the right forward.
“There is more intent from Wenger this year,” the source added. “There is a feeling that he will go into the January market in a big way. He knows what Arsenal need to win the title and he is ready to make it happen.”
Publicly, the body language has altered little. Wenger remains as articulate on camera as he is agitated on the touchline.
Privately, a spring is back in the 64-year-old's step. With Sir Alex removed from the fray, the new spiritual father of the Premier League management fraternity is marking out his territory in the dugout.
- Sports & Recreation