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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sid Lowe

Lauren: ‘It’s been a long wait but this team is ready. This Arsenal can win it’

Lauren (right) celebrates with Thierry Henry after scoring in Arsenal’s 5-4 victory at White Hart Lane in 2004
Lauren (right) celebrates with Thierry Henry after scoring in Arsenal’s 5-4 victory at White Hart Lane in 2004. The former full-back believes Mikel Arteta’s current side are close to being an all-conquering force. Photograph: Mike Finn-Kelcey/Reuters

Little Lauren Bisan-Etamé Mayer could be forgiven for being a bit distracted in class, for his mind drifting. From the windows of Hermanos Álvarez Quintero school, he could see Sevilla’s training ground.

He had been going there almost every day since they spotted him, aged 11, and even when he wasn’t supposed to turn up he would head over as soon as he could. Some days he would climb the fence. With good reason, too: in 1992, the greatest footballer of all had joined his team, the one he imagined playing for one day.

The future Arsenal full-back was 15 when Sevilla signed Diego Maradona. “I remember sitting watching him take free-kicks and it was spectacular,” he says, cracking up at the memory of it, the absurdity. “He’d score one. He’d score two. You’d think: ‘Nah, the third won’t go in.’ And he would score three. Then the fourth. ‘There’s no way the fifth goes in …’ and it did. One after the other.

“I’ve never seen anything like it – and I’ve seen Dennis Bergkamp. I remember someone throwing a ball of tinfoil at him at a corner: he controlled it, juggled it and volleyed it back.

“The son of the man who looked after the training ground, Florencio, became one of my best friends and we would go in though gate zero at the Sánchez Pizjuán and stand behind the north goal: every game, me and my friends. I’ve always been a Sevillista.”

Mostly, those boys just wanted to have fun. Asked what he was like as a kid, Lauren shoots back “handsome” and then starts laughing, which is pretty much his natural state. Above all, he was happy.

“I had a great time,” he says. “Even after training, I kept playing. We played in the streets, the parks, the squares: all day, every day. That was the way I learned, which is something that’s been lost. Kids are overloaded with information, put in a corset; they don’t go to academies to enjoy themselves, to play. I was lucky: I did.”

The second-youngest of 22 children, his family living in adjacent flats in his block, Lauren was good at it too. All those hours helped – the formal ones sure, the informal ones more – as he built a 13-year professional career he could barely have imagined sitting in that classroom. On Tuesday, the team where he pictured himself playing face the club for whom he did when Arsenal travel to the stadium where he stood behind the goal. Who better, then, to predict what will happen? “We’ll enjoy a great game between two great teams,” he says, laughing at his almost comically unconvincing attempt to sit on the fence.

Besides, while Seville is his home and Sevilla his club, although he appears on their club TV channel, offering analysis as deep as his experience as a player, it would be no surprise for Lauren to identify even more with his adopted home. As a quick, goalscoring No 10 at Sevilla, he never became a first-team player; as a strong, relentless full-back at Arsenal, he became something even better: an Invincible. Now he is an Arsenal ambassador, attending a match that is special with their official delegation. He would have loved to have played for his boyhood team but the loss, it turns out, was theirs.

“I was reaching my best level playing for Sevilla Atlético, the B team, and felt ready for the first team,” he says. “I scored two against Melilla, one against Córdoba, was brilliant against Poli Ejido, played three superb months so they offered me an amateur contract on 300,000 pesetas a year plus 80,000 pesetas a month. Levante offered me a full professional contract and I went.

“That Sevilla wasn’t this one; there were fewer resources, they weren’t on top of the academy. When Monchi took over [as sporting director in 2000], no one else wanted the post.”

Gabriel Jesus battles to break through Manchester City’s defence
Gabriel Jesus needs a high-quality back-up striker to help Arsenal break through to winning the league and the Champions League, Lauren says. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Lauren left in 1997, aged 20; that year Sevilla were relegated, with a reconstruction needed and soon delivered. They had not won a major trophy since 1948. In the past 17 years, they have won seven Europa League titles, 11 trophies in all. Meanwhile, Lauren went from Levante to Mallorca, to Arsenal, to Portsmouth.

The move to London enabled him to meet Maradona. “He was Boca coach when Arsenal played them in Amsterdam and I got a picture with him,” Lauren says with a smile. “He stopped for absolutely everyone, he knew who we were, our careers, which tells you everything about him. It’s Maradona, for goodness sake. Others have done nothing and they act superior; he was so humble.”

It also enabled him to build an enviable career: Olympic gold medallist, twice a champion of Africa, three times an FA Cup winner with Arsenal, once with Portsmouth.

And twice a Premier League winner, the team that took the 2003‑04 title doing so without losing a single match – and an Invincible is always an Invincible. “I found that out this summer,” he says. “I was with Arsenal in Washington, New Jersey and Los Angeles – people there were stopping us. You never imagine it, but it’s incredible how much love they have for our team, our era.”

How could they not? His was the last Arsenal team to win the league. Almost 20 years later, Lauren believes they can at last do so again. “There have been good teams, good players, but there’s been a long wait. Now we have a real possibility, this generation has a genuine chance,” he says.

“Last year they were on the edge of it and this year I think they can; this team is ready. This Arsenal can win it.”

He has plenty of reasons. “There are lots of factors but there are three I’d highlight,” he says, counting them out on his fingers. “One, good coaches: Mikel Arteta and his staff. Two, the cohesion of the group. And three, the talent. Good players in every part of the pitch and on the bench too.”

He picks out Fábio Vieira, Leandro Trossard, Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe among the key back-ups. There’s a pause. “Although, I would sign a forward to help Gabriel Jesus. In four competitions, maybe they need that.

“You have [Bukayo] Saka: there’s so much pressure loaded on him but he still knows what to do at every moment. He takes good decisions, doesn’t try to do more than he should. And Martin Ødegaard’s the same. It’s not just on the pitch, it is off it too.

“He’s a spectacular lad, he knows what he wants. He’s a young player with talent, quality and a winning mentality, and he puts that at the service of the team, which is why Arteta trusts in him so much. Every game he plays well. There are no ups and downs.

“All the clubs Ødegaard has been at, that path here, have helped him grow, especially mentally. This is his ideal moment now. You see him, speak to him, and he’s so focused, so clear.

“Arteta doesn’t give the captaincy to just anyone because he’s the same – football is his ‘illness’, his obsession. The captain has to be someone who can manage the emotional situations.

“Why do Real Madrid always come back? Because they can handle it emotionally, they don’t fold. They have that stability. Ødegaard has that, at just 24.”

Lauren continues: “I spoke to Martin, Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel during preseason. I saw how the players were together, how they talk. You can feel it. They have that thing that we had in our era. That comes from the manager, too. I was so impressed with the way he transmits to the players. He really reaches them.

Lauren portrait
Lauren spent time at Sevilla B but was unable to break through into the senior side. On Tuesday his home town team host the club he won two league titles with. Photograph: Denis Doyle/Getty Images

“There have been great players, good teams, but context is vital. [Santi] Cazorla could turn both ways, he was skilful, saw everything. Had it not been for the injury, Tomas Rosicky would have been a phenomenon. Cesc [Fàbregas], who was so intelligent – he’ll be a coach. [José Antonio] Reyes, who was pure talent, but he didn’t like it in London.

“Robin van Persie had that personality too. You go to Arsenal and you have to compete with [Thierry] Henry and Bergkamp. He didn’t mind: he had the character that said: ‘I’m here.’ Lots of players – no names – turn up who are going to be the business, going to score loads of goals, and they shrink against Henry or Bergkamp. Ours was a difficult dressing room!.”

You included? Lauren laughs. “I was a sister of mercy compared to most. But you need that character, that experience. And that’s at all levels of the club, not just the players. I remember Arsène Wenger calling me in. He was a coach who wanted feedback. He says: ‘Why do you think we’re not competing in Europe?’ And there wasn’t really an answer. We just didn’t have the pedigree, the experience. Domestically, yes. But not in Europe, where every mistake cost. And you need that. It’s not just the players.

“Put the Invincibles into the club the way it is now, with the experience and knowhow, used to playing the competition every year, and we would win the Champions League.

“That’s why I think this team is ready, because that’s there. The club has grown, they have. Last year, when they were competing for the title, how many players had been in that situation before? Jorginho, [Oleksandr] Zinchenko, Gabriel Jesus. Three. Now all of them have. So when those pressure moments come and you have to win come what may against Liverpool or West Ham, you can do it. If we buy a striker to help Gabriel Jesus, we can win the league and compete for the Champions League, why not?”

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