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Lauren: Gunners can challenge for title next season

| 12.01.2022

Lauren was part of Arsenal’s Invincibles team that went through the 2003-4 season unbeaten having also won the Premier League title in his second year with the club.

In an exclusive interview with Ladbrokes, the former defender talks about Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the best players of the season so far, Takehiro Tomiyasu, the Battle of Trafford, Arsene Wenger and Thierry Henry.

But, the Frenchman started with his thoughts on Arsenal’s title hope for next season and where they can finish in the current campaign.

Arsenal can challenge for the title next year

We saw Arsenal in the first half against Manchester City. Arsenal were absolutely brilliant. They took the game to a top team and were unlucky not to get a result. If you take that first half, there’s no way you could say City were better than Arsenal. The whole team just looked so confident going forward and in defence.

Later on things happened in the game, small mistakes which need addressing. But on the whole everyone was at the top of their game, against such a usually dominant team like City. Everyone was comfortable, there was a great balance from defence to attack. They showed me enough in that first half to tell me they could be fighting for the league as early as next season. If they continue to play in that way, they’ll be right up there. They just need to work on their concentration and sustain those concentration levels for the duration of the game, but if they can do that, then I believe they’ll be fighting next season to win the Premier League.

There’s a lot more to come from this side, and the key thing this season is to qualify for the Champions League, because once you do that, you can begin to attract even better players. Do that, and I believe Mikel Arteta’s side can sustain a title challenge.

Gunners can finish in top four

Nobody wants to be knocked out of the FA Cup – especially at a club like Arsenal because it’s a great opportunity to win a trophy. But that result aside, and despite a slow start to the season, I’ve been impressed with how much Mikel Arteta has turned things around. The team scored 20 goals in six games before the Nottingham Forest defeat, conceding just three goals in that time. That in itself tells you that things have improved a lot.

After a slow start, the team are now in a Champions League position, which is a testament to the job Arteta and his players have done over the past few months. Their season is going well and I just hope it continues that way. I believe they’ll qualify for next year’s Champions League.

Mikel Arteta, Arsenal

Nothing is guaranteed, but the FA Cup exit and lack of European football means that all their concentration has to be on the league. There are no distractions, so the players shouldn’t think about anything else. There’s still a long way to go between now and the end of the season, but every single player has to be focused on the task at hand. The goal is to make the Champions League.

The game against West Ham – another top-four rival – was a great example for me to see where this side is at, and they played some fantastic football there, coming out with the win. That, combined with their effort against Man City, tells me that top four is a realistic ambition for this season.

Resolve Aubameyang row or bring in new striker this month

If Arsenal want to increase their chances of securing a Champions League spot this season – something I believe is very important for the club – then the striker situation needs addressing. Either we resolve the situation with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or we bring someone in who can get 10-12 goals between now and the end of the season.

First of all, I think it’s important to talk with Aubameyang, to try and get him back on board. If the club cannot resolve that issue, then we should be looking at another target in this transfer window, just to be sure that there is enough depth and quality at that end of the pitch. The midfield players have been adding goals, but they need another striker to help guarantee that Champions League place.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal

Mikel Arteta is the one person who knows what’s going on with Aubameyang. He sees him every single day, so ultimately you feel like it will be his call as to where his future lies. But for me, and from what I’ve seen, I believe the club should try to resolve the situation with Aubameyang before looking at alternatives. He already knows the system, he knows the players, he knows the Premier League, he knows the institution, he knows everything, so we have to try to get him back to his best. When he’s at his best, there’s no debating he’s one of the best strikers in the world. But if the club cannot sort things out with him, then obviously they have to take a risk by spending a lot of money on a top, top striker.

Dusan Vlahovic is one of the names we’ve seen linked to the club, and he’s already scored 16 goals for Fiorentina this season. He’s a quality player who can easily fit into Arteta’s system as the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1, while also possessing the skills to play in a front three. He can hold the ball up well, he’s got quick feet, he’s good in the air, he’s quick in the transition and he’s a quick thinker. He’s young, too. He’s only 21 years old, so he’s still got time to improve his game. It’s vital Arsenal either resolve things with Aubameyang or bring in a new striker this month. I cannot stress the importance of securing Champions League football this season.

Martinelli deserves credit, but ESR & Saka are my players of the season so far

I believe that Gabriel Martinelli deserves a lot of credit for the impact he’s had on the starting line-up since returning from injury. He has four goals and two assists from his last eight games, which is an excellent return, and has played a huge part in Arsenal’s recent success. It was a shame that he was out for so long because it stopped his progress, but he’s shown a lot of character since then to get on with things and force his way into the team. It’s great news for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta that he’s found this excellent run of form.

And then – of course – you’ve got Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe. Saka has six goals and four assists in the league, Smith Rowe has eight goals and two assists. Those two have been so important for the team. They’ve been Arsenal’s best players so far this season. It’s hard to single one out, because they’ve both been so important. They’re absolutely fantastic. Both of them have the character, ability and mentality to play a huge role for the team and consistently put in top performances.

Tomiyasu is doing a brilliant job – it’s like he’s been here for years

I knew about Takehiro Tomiyasu before he joined Arsenal in the summer. He spent a couple of years in Italy before moving to England, and that experience of football in Europe was vital as it meant he didn’t need to adapt his game that much.

He plays things very simply. He may have only played 16 games for the team but you’d think he’d been at the club for years. It’s a credit to him and his personality. He’s gelled well with his defensive team-mates, he’s great at closing down the opposition and is very effective going forward, always offering an option on the overlap. He’s got a great engine and great technique. Mikel Arteta likes that kind of player, and I think he’s just been absolutely brilliant so far this season for the team.

Ben White is the kind of player Arsenal have needed for some time. He’s so comfortable on the ball and reliable at the back. The goalkeeper, Aaron Ramsdale, has also been superb. I think it’s fair to say we all had some doubts at the beginning of the season, but he’s been fantastic. Not only is he great at saving, but his distribution is right up there. He’s a great starting point for counter attacks – he’s very clever.

You really get the feeling that everything is starting to connect together at Arsenal now. The fans, the manager, the players and the board are all heading in the same direction. Hopefully this will continue, because at the beginning of the season I really was concerned with how things were going to go, but so far I’ve been really impressed with the improvement.

I wouldn’t change anything that happened in Battle of Old Trafford

Honestly, I don’t remember too much about what was said in the dressing room after that game against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Obviously we had all of the drama on the pitch, with Patrick Vieira’s red card, and then the late penalty. What happened on that day was the consequence of many games that had come before. You could always sense something like that was going to happen because of the rivalry between the two sides.

The fact that Ruud van Nistelrooy missed his penalty, and the way Vieira was sent off, there was just an explosion at full-time. We were obviously very happy in the dressing room with the fact we avoided defeat and our unbeaten run was still going strong, but I can’t remember too much about what was said – it all seems like a blur when I think about it now.

Wenger, Lauren, Bergkamp, Pires, Keown, Arsenal

I faced the toughest punishment in the aftermath of that game – the highest fine and the longest ban, but even when I look back on it today, I can honestly say I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I have always protected my team-mates, and that’s all I was doing on that day. It’s not a reaction I’m proud of, nor is it one I would show to kids, but I have no regrets at all. That club gave me everything, they showed me love and respect, so I will always go out and defend them. Arsenal is my family. If I were in the same position, I would always defend the people I care for. I don’t care about the fine, the ban, anything; I’d behave exactly the same way – no doubt.

Results and moments like that absolutely bring the team together. Those situations and every other difficult moment in that season played a huge part in the unity of the squad. That team had such a strong bond. We cared about each other on and off the pitch – we all fought for the same purpose.

A lot of people look at that Invincible team and talk about the starting XI, and as strong as it was, the role the substitutes played was just as important. In order to succeed, to go unbeaten, you need more than just 11 players. Especially when you have to face injuries and suspensions, and the aftermath of that incident at Old Trafford. We had to rely on our substitutes to come in and put in 110% performances. You don’t win trophies with 11 players; that’s wrong. A strong bench makes the difference over the course of the season, I strongly believe that.

Wenger is a genius; everything in modern-day football, he implemented 20 years ago

Arsene Wenger is a genius who never lost his cool. All we are learning in the modern game is that Arsene was 20 years ahead of things. You see people talking about how to eat, when to eat, how to sleep and all of these things to improve as a player; Arsene was doing all of this 20 years ago.

Not only off the pitch, but on it, too. Possession and transition are two big things in modern day football, but that was Wenger 20 years ago. That was his philosophy, playing the ball out from the back, the focus on transition and being positionally astute. Shifting the ball from right to left, and back again, being patient and finding the space – these are all things you associate with modern teams, but Arsene laid the foundations in the 90s with Arsenal.

Wingers and full-backs, and their importance in today’s game? It’s something else Arsene identified all those years ago. I’d regularly find myself playing like a midfielder, as would the left-back. Sometimes there’d be three at the back, with a midfielder drifting into defence, allowing the full-backs to push on – this was all implemented by Wenger.

Arsene Wenger

Everything we see now, we’ve already seen from Arsene Wenger. He’s a genius, it’s as simple as that.

We never spoke about going a whole season unbeaten. I know it’s something Arsene had said, but I don’t remember us having those conversations as players. When I saw the clip of him telling the news that we were capable of doing it, it surprised me because he never said it to us. Maybe he told the captain, or Thierry Henry, but I never heard it – or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention!

I was a machine at that stage of my career. I was so focused on the job at hand, I didn’t really concentrate on anything else. I knew what was expected of me, and I trained hard. I’d often spend longer at the training ground than I needed to, because I was obsessed with improving my game and learning. I knew when I played well and I knew when I played badly. If it was a case of the latter, I wouldn’t sleep for two nights. I couldn’t help but think of how I could’ve done things differently. It’s a lot to deal with and take on, but the positive of maintaining those high levels of focus is that you don’t allow yourself the time to read about what’s being said about you in the newspapers, you’re busy working on your game.

Defenders were best trainers at Arsenal – Henry, Bergkamp and Pires made sure of that!

I can’t single out one player from my time at Arsenal who I’d say was the best trainer. In my opinion it’s simple, it was the defenders – all of us! That’s why we went unbeaten; it wasn’t because of the forwards, it was us at the back!

I’d say myself, Kolo Toure, Martin Keown, Jens Lehmann. We were some of the best trainers at the club; we had to be. Playing against Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, every single day in training, we couldn’t not be at our best. If you’re training with guys as talented as this, your job is only going to be easier on a Saturday! You’ve already come up against the best players in the league throughout the week in training!

Jens was an absolutely incredible professional. He was so focused at all times; he didn’t play games with you. There’s a story about him talking about our Invincible campaign, where he’s annoyed with the amount of games we drew that season; he felt we should have won more. That’s absolutely the Jens that I know. He’s ever the professional – I love him.

Why Thierry Henry was one of the best strikers in the world

I obviously played on the right-hand side, so in training I’d often be up against Thierry Henry because he liked coming in from the left – that’s how I improved my game. I had to beat him to every ball, and match him for pace, and take the ball off him, all of these things.

People talk about why he’s one of the best goalscorers we’ve ever seen in the Premier League, and how it’s ultimately down to his quality. But I believe there’s more to it than that. Of course, he had a natural ability which I believe was God-given – it’s a gift. But it comes down to the work he put in at all times, on the training ground and in every match. He hardly ever missed a game; he hardly ever had a bad game, he was always striving to be the best version of himself.

If he scored two one week, he wanted to score three the next, and it’s this mentality which helped him go on to become an Arsenal great. Apart from his natural gift, it was his mental side.

You’ll come across players with the same, or very similar, levels of quality as Thierry, but they’re lacking that strong mental side. That separates great players from good ones.

I nearly joined Real Madrid, but Arsene Wenger and David Dein sold Arsenal to me

I had the chance to sign for Roma in the summer of 2000; I went to the club and held talks with the manager and the board. But in the end we decided it was a little too early in my career for such a move, so I stayed at Mallorca for another season. I was told by Mallorca that if I spent one more season with them, they would sell me on in the following summer – and they stuck to their word.

That following summer, I held talks with Real Madrid, who had expressed an interest in me throughout the season, but we struggled to reach an agreement. Meanwhile, I had a call from Arsenal. David Dein wanted me to meet with him at his house, along with Arsene Wenger, at which point Real Madrid got back in touch with me but I’d told them it was too late, and that I wanted to move to London – the rest is history!

Ryan Giggs was the toughest opponent I faced, but I put him in my pocket when it mattered most

Without any doubt, Ryan Giggs was the toughest opponent I ever came up against. He was such a clever player. He always had one eye on where you were and the space in behind you. He had quick feet and so much speed on the ball. He could breeze past players with ease.

Ryan Giggs

I do have to say, though, one of my best games in an Arsenal shirt came against Man United, when we won the league at Old Trafford. That day, I put Ryan Giggs in my pocket. That game was brilliant.

Another Invincible team? Never say never, but it’s unlikely – I was so happy when Liverpool lost at Watford

You can never say never, but I believe it’ll be very difficult to see another Premier League team going an entire season unbeaten. It’s so hard to achieve that. I remember a few years back, everybody was talking about Liverpool, and in the immediate season after we did it, Chelsea went close but lost one game. People always talk about Manchester City, but it’s not easy at all.

Do I sit and pray for teams to not go and match our record? No. Am I happy when they don’t do it, though? Of course I am. I won’t spend a whole season hoping a team loses, but yes, when it does happen, I’m happy. When Liverpool lost that game against Watford, I was very happy. I think I tweeted about it at the time.

North London derby prediction and winning the league at White Hart Lane

It’s not going to be easy for Arsenal this weekend, that’s for sure. It’s going to be a tight game. I believe that the team will be very different to the one which lost against Nottingham Forest. I really do see the game going either way. I’ll sit on the fence a little, and while I really hope Arsenal get three points, I think I’m going to go for a draw on Sunday. Both teams are very equal at the moment.

Celebrating a title at the home of your local rivals is one of the best feelings in the world. It doesn’t really get much better than that in football. As an Arsenal player, to win the league at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane, it’s two dreams come true, and I was lucky to be a part of both teams.

I left Arsenal too early – I feel sorry for the Portsmouth fans

It was difficult for me to leave Arsenal and join Portsmouth. There’s a completely different structure in place. All of a sudden I was in a team fighting for different things, expectations were different – overall it was just hard to adapt. If I’m being honest with myself, my feeling was that it was not the right time to leave the club. If I could  have prepared myself a little better, I have no doubt I’d have played for another three or four years at Arsenal. I wasn’t ready to leave the club.

Mentally, I don’t think I was at my best for Portsmouth. I switched off, and once you do that at the top level, it’s hard to get back to the top of your game.

I feel sorry for the Portsmouth fans. I feel sorry for Harry Redknapp, but in particular the supporters. They are some of the best I’ve ever come across in football. They’re behind the players from the first minute to the last – they’re a fantastic group. I feel sorry for them because they didn’t see me at my best. If I could go back, I’d definitely do things differently.

Harry is a fantastic guy. He’s a great manager. You’d spend your whole day at training laughing. He gets to you right from your first day and touches your heart. He’s not a tactician or anything like that. With Harry it’s all about man-management and getting the best out of you from a personal level.

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Warren Barner