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Nwankwo Kanu talks European Super League, Arsenal woes, West Brom great escape and whether De Bruyne would make Invincibles team

| 21.04.2021

Nwankwo Kanu was part of Arsenal’s Invincibles squad and also played for West Brom and Portsmouth in the top flight.

We caught up with the former Nigeria forward to discuss the proposed European Super League, what he makes of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal and what it was like during West Brom’s great escape in 04/05.

Keep an eye on our social channels over the coming days to see Kanu’s Arsenal v Everton 5-A-Side team.

‘We don’t want football to die with European Super League’

If you asked me, I’d say things are better off staying as they are. There is so much history behind the clubs involved in the European Super League and the talks have already caused a lot of division and problems.

You have to think about football, about the grassroots, about local clubs. We don’t want football to die. Football is something that brings unity and happiness. It bridges gaps, it builds communities. There’s a lot of good things football brings, and we don’t want it taken away from us. I pray that everything will be sorted out.

There are so many more problems in football that need addressing before talk of a European Super League. Racism is still a huge part of the game and that needs sorting out. We haven’t addressed that, and now we’re creating more problems within the game by this talk of a Super League.

Football is not for one person; it’s for everybody. That means that when things aren’t going well, everybody suffers. I think we have to take all of this energy and apply it to all corners of the game where there are already problems and put them right before we do anything else.

Racism in football isn’t something that I have personally experienced or had to deal with, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know about it or I don’t see it. Just because it hasn’t happened to you, doesn’t mean that it’s not something that’s going on. It’s a very big issue that has to be sorted out. Until we do that, we are always going to have problems in football.

Until we put in place more strict rules around racism that don’t just affect the one player and the club in question, it will still happen. We know this because we’ve seen the current punishments in place for so long and yet there is still a massive problem that needs addressing

‘You can’t say Mikel Arteta has done an amazing job’

It’s a difficult one to assess as far as Arsenal’s season is concerned because domestically they aren’t anywhere near what we’re used to seeing, but in Europe they look really strong.

The coach did a good job in winning the FA Cup last season but this is a big club, and the expectation of a big club is to win the league. As things stand, you can’t rate Arsenal highly in terms of performances in the Premier League, but if they can win the Europa League, it gives them a good balance, knowing they have struggled in the league.

You can’t exactly say that Mikel Arteta is doing an amazing job, but we have to remember he’s in a European semi-final and he’s working hard. He’s not been in charge for very long so it’s tough to judge him too much.

The best option for Arsenal for the remainder of the season is to put everything into trying to win the Europa League. If they don’t, we know what might happen as far as Mikel Arteta’s future is concerned, because football is all about getting results.

If Arsenal don’t win the Europa League, and they finish outside of the European spots in the league, it means they are nowhere next season, which means it’s very difficult for Arteta to keep hold of his job. The club won’t be happy, neither will supporters, so the pressure really will be on him.

You could look at Tottenham and Jose Mourinho, but Arsenal are a different club altogether. They have never really acted too hastily as far as managerial appointments are concerned.

They would much rather give people time, and that’s why Arteta is still in charge to this day. At the end of the season the club has to sit down, look into things and decide what they want to do based on results in the next few weeks.

‘I’d like to see Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry take over at the Emirates – they bleed Arsenal’

I agree with William Gallas that Patrick Vieira would be a good fit as Arsenal’s manager because he’s Arsenal through and through.

I think the same thing about Thierry Henry. If you asked me, I’d say go and get both of them. They’re Arsenal blood and their presence would make Arsenal a better team.

Arsenal’s defensive problems and Alex Iwobi

I think Arsenal have a very strong strike force so I don’t see Mikel Arteta bringing anyone in up-front this summer. It’s in defence where we’ve seen they always have problems. They’re getting better slowly, but we’re still seeing too many mistakes which have led to goals.

I don’t actually think getting players is the issue; it’s more about the coach getting his players to play the style of football he wants them to. There are good players all around that team.

When Arteta came in, his first job was to sort out the defence. But they’re past that level now – they need to push on and reach the level we’re use to seeing from them – where they go all out in attack.

You have to score goals, you have to play good football and score goals – he needs to bring that back. So I don’t think bringing players in is the answer; it’s about figuring out exactly which system he wants to play and getting his players to execute that.

I was surprised they let Alex Iwobi go when they did. He was supposed to be a part of this team and I think they’d be a better team with him in it. He’s Arsenal blood and he’s always given his all for the team. He plays at an international level. I believe he’d be much more comfortable in this Arsenal team than he is in the Everton team.

Arsenal’s player of the season? A toss-up between Saka and Smith Rowe

There are two names which spring to mind as far as Arsenal’s player of the season goes; Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka. They offer the team so much through their versatility. Saka can play in so many positions, and when he’s not playing, you can see the side struggles without him.

Smith Rowe is a very good player. He can open up games and Arsenal definitely need him to play more in the next few years. These two, for me, have been the best players for Arsenal this season – they can’t afford for either of those two players to get injured.

The way Bukayo Saka is playing, he’s so good that there’s always a worry a big club might come in for him in the summer. Arsenal have to do everything within their power to keep him. He’s very young, and he’s got so many years ahead of him. Arsenal have to make sure they keep all of these young players like Saka, Smith Rowe and Eddie Nketiah.

Play Aubameyang up-front with Lacazette

Every striker wants to play through the middle, but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been sacrificed to suit Arsenal’s system. He’s still managing to score goals from out wide but I know – and Arteta knows – that Aubameyang will want to be playing through the middle.

The coach knows his quality but because of the system he chooses to operate, they’re not getting the best out of Aubameyang at the moment.

For me I don’t think it would be a bad idea to go back to a 4-4-2 formation, but Arteta has to have belief in his defenders and midfielders. When I played for the club we played in that formation with me and Thierry Henry up-front. That doesn’t mean we didn’t come back and help out defensively, but we were a much stronger force going forward because there was two of us.

Things have changed now though and teams will operate with three forwards, two who will play out wide and have to track back and defend a lot of the time. At a club like Arsenal, you don’t want to see players such as Aubameyang having to operate as a defender. You want to see him higher up the pitch. When you tell him he needs to be a winger, it’s difficult to expect many goals from him because of the work he has to do defensively.

If I was the coach, I’d be trying to find a system which allows Aubameyang to play further up the field, closer to Alex Lacazette and that’s how you get the best out of both of them. You have to make sure you’re playing to someone as good as Aubameyang’s strengths. Let others do his dirty work for him.

On joining Arsenal and relationship with Wenger

I had heard that Arsene Wenger had been tracking me during my time at Inter and it soon became clear to me that he wanted me to come and play for him at Arsenal.

Other clubs definitely came in for me; there were a number of sides who wanted me at that time but I saw more effort from Arsenal and in particular Arsene than any other club or manager. He’d watched me for six months and kept in regular contact with me, so I knew when I joined Arsenal exactly what he wanted me to come and do for the club.

Everybody that knows Arsene knows that he’s a good man. The way he talks to you, and the way he brings the best out of you is unrivalled. He gave me the space and freedom to operate. I don’t think he’s someone who has ever made things difficult for players, and that’s why he was so successful.

It’s hard to pick out any players in particular during my time at Arsenal who I would call my closest friends because we were such a tight group. We all shared that winning mentality and were all physically strong.

We always used to push each other; it didn’t matter who you were – we never put anyone ahead of anyone else; we were always all at the same level and that’s why we had so much success. Nobody was better than anybody else. We had so many leaders in our team. Patrick Vieira was our captain, but there were so many leaders there. We never gave up.

Arsenal is a family. When you’re there, everyone is your family. There are no exceptions; if you’re a new player, you’re welcomed and you’re made to feel at home from the moment you join. Everybody worked for everyone and we picked each other up at all times.

When I left Arsenal it was very hard for me. I was there for many years but I always knew you couldn’t just stay in one place forever so I had to make a decision and move on. Arsene came to my house to discuss his plans with me and we agreed that it was best for me to leave.

‘Kevin De Bruyne is the best player in the league right now, but he wouldn’t get into my Invincible team’

For me, Kevin De Bruyne is the player of the season. They’ve had a lot of great players this season, but when Kevin De Bruyne is on the pitch, you know about it.

When he’s not playing, there’s a difference in that side. He’s so important to their success. He keeps scoring goals, making assists, and he gives the team such a great balance. His level is right up there and he plays football with a smile. He plays with ease.

He’s the best player in the league at the moment, but he wouldn’t get into my Invincible team. That team is different altogether. Physically, De Bruyne can match them, and technically.

He’s got a bit of Robert Pires about him when he plays from the left-hand side, but the kind of football we played at that time is not the kind of football we’re used to seeing now. So it would be difficult for De Bruyne to get into that side.

That doesn’t mean he’s not a good player; I’m just saying our team had everything in terms of physicality, skill, heart and determination. That’s what made us tick and made us invincible. If De Bruyne would’ve been playing in the Premier League around the time of our team, I don’t think he’d have matched up to us.

On joining West Brom

Arsene Wenger came to my home at the end of the 2003-04 season and we spoke about plans for the next season. After that talk, I made the decision to move on, and shortly after I signed for West Bromwich Albion. I moved to Birmingham which I thought was a wonderful place where the people there really made me feel at home.

I loved the West Brom supporters, and I think they loved me too. I did everything I could for them, and you’ve got to remember it was a completely different ball game from leaving Arsenal to joining West Brom. I came from a club that had just gone a whole season unbeaten, I was an African Footballer of the Year winner and I’d moved to a team who were trying to stay in the division.

With all due respect to West Brom, the levels and standards were obviously different to those at Arsenal, but you just need to adjust to things. That’s what I did; I worked hard, I knew the job I had to do and I gave my best.

You want to be in a situation where supporters will always remember you for the right reasons after you move on – and I hope that’s something I achieved at West Brom.

I was happy at the club; I was playing regular football which was something I felt I needed to be doing at the time and I always gave 100 per cent.

It’s difficult sometimes to adapt to new coaches, or when different managers come into a team. But you have to be strong and remember that people can never take away the talent and the skills you have been blessed with.

Bryan Robson was a totally different coach to anyone I’d worked with before. He knew what he wanted to do, but I feel that he could’ve done better, knowing where he came from and the kind of footballer he was. I don’t think I really saw that, but we had to follow his instructions and at the end of the day he did his best. We worked hard for him and the rest is history.

On Great Escape and advice for relegation-doomed Baggies

We always knew there was a great unity in our team throughout the 2004-05 season. We knew we had a great spirit, even when results weren’t going our way. When we turned a corner in the second half of the season and the fans believed the Great Escape was on, it was like everything gelled together because us players always knew it was possible.

Everybody in the squad believed we could do it, even at Christmas, even going into the last game of the season. We were playing fantastic football and everyone was working hard for each other. We knew we had a great chance to make history, and that’s exactly what we did in the end.

The final game of the season against Portsmouth is so memorable because we didn’t have social media to check the scores every second. We were getting communications from the people around us about what was going on around the rest of the grounds. We were all talking to each other on the bench, encouraging each other knowing where we were and how things stood.

But it’s easy to get carried away with just what a momentous occasion that final day was. Of course it was huge, but it was a giant effort from everyone all season, the fans included. The players – even the ones that weren’t playing regularly – all had a huge role in that season. Everyone was fully involved to make sure we achieved that famous moment.

After the final whistle and the celebrations on the pitch and in the dressing room, that was it for me. We have to move forward, go back home to our families and yes, while we were still very happy, we had to start planning for the next season straight away.

What I will say to the current West Brom side is this: just go for it in these last seven games. Sometimes when they have sat back in certain games it’s frustrated me because I just find myself asking ‘why?’ Either you win, or you lose.

The situation they are in at the moment means they really have to go for it. Every player has to treat every game like a final and they have to win it. They are seven must-win games.

On his goal celebration with the ball-boys against Tottenham

A big moment I guess West Brom fans remember me for was that game against Tottenham Hotspur in my second season with the club – in particular my goal celebrations where I picked up the two ball-boys at either ends of the pitch.

The funny thing was that only one of them was a West Brom fan; the other was a Tottenham supporter! I didn’t realise that at the time but you’ll see if you watch it again I was just in a good mood and wanted to celebrate in a special way.

But I always loved playing against Tottenham, because of their rivalry with Arsenal. Arsenal fans would always say to me ‘Kanu, just go and do it for us’ whenever I came up against Tottenham, regardless of who I was playing for, and I have a good record against them.

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