Monday July 11th, 2011

The timing was typical Carlos Tevez. Within hours of Manchester City confirming their first signing of the summer, Gael Clichy, the controversial club captain had released yet another statement declaring his wish to leave the club. His comments overshadowed the new arrival but of the two stories, it was Clichy's signing that was the more surprising.

The Tevez saga will no doubt run and run -- it feels like he's been saying the same things about Manchester ever since he skipped across town to City two years ago -- while the Clichy deal, rather like the player himself, was done quickly, smartly, and with the minimum of fuss.

Arsenal would have liked to keep Clichy, but he only had one year left to run on his contract. He rejected the club's terms back in March, and was expected to join Liverpool this summer. Its sports director, Damien Comolli, was the Arsenal scout who spotted Clichy, then 17, playing for Cannes. There was also interest from Juventus, but City's £7 million ($11.2M) fee was accepted, and personal terms, reported to be over Arsenal's ceiling of £90,000 per week ($143,000), agreed.

The deal is significant for three reasons. One, it's a reminder to Comolli that even if he spots value in his Moneyball-inspired approach to recruitment -- and given that Clichy is still only 25, he's worth a long contract -- that City can blow rivals out of the water where wages are concerned. Two, proof that City love their left-backs: in the last two years, it has bought Joleon Lescott, Wayne Bridge, Jerome Boateng and Aleksandar Kolarov, all of whom can play there. Add in Clichy, and City's estimated total salary comes to £500,000 per week ($796,000), for just that one position.

And three, Clichy's departure will leave an obvious gap at Arsenal. He was its longest-serving player and the only one still at the club to have played in its 2003-04 "Invincibles" campaign. Clichy made 12 appearances that season -- Cesc Fabregas joined at the same time, but did not play in the league -- and he still holds the record as the youngest player to win the Premier League title (at 18 years and 10 months).

At first, Clichy thought he was the victim of a prank when a man claiming to be Arsene Wenger phoned up his parents and asked to visit. "I only really believed it once he was there on the doorstep," Clichy said in an interview with French TV show Jour du Sport. Wenger convinced Clichy that he would be backup to Ashley Cole, promising that the other left back, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, would be sent out on loan. Within days of Clichy's arrival in 2003, Van Bronckhorst was loaned to Barcelona. "Arsene always does what he says, and for me that's the mark of a great man."

Not that it was easy for Clichy in the early days. He was only 17, he spoke no English and he missed home. "With hindsight, I¹m not sure I would have gone to Arsenal at that young an age," he added. "It's very tough when you're still a kid to move abroad on your own. It all worked out for me, but it was hard work and it¹s not always been easy."

This is where the steeliness spotted by his youth-team coach at Cannes, Christian Lopez, came in useful. "Gael knew the direction he wanted to go," Lopez told La Depeche. "He had a good attitude, was strong mentally, and was always aggressive in the way he played. It was combination that marked him out as special."

When Cole was out with a long-term injury in October 2005, Clichy had a chance to stake his place, but he injured his ankle and for a while, his career was in the balance. He had operations in France and England and after six months out, played just two games before a recurrence in late-April.

Clichy sat out France's involvement in the U-21 European Championship that summer, and had successful surgery at Dr Mark Myerson¹s Baltimore clinic.

It worked, which was just as well, because Cole controversially joined Chelsea and Clichy took his place. Wenger used his refusal to buy a replacement for Cole as justification of his philosophy. "What's the point of educating young players if they don't play? Why should I buy someone to block Clichy's path?" he told L'Equipe.

Ever since, Clichy has been first-choice left-back, averaging over 40 games per season. He was voted left-back of the year in 2007-08, during which season he showed another tough edge to his character. After several call-ups to the France squad failed to result in a first senior appearance, he claimed he was considering taking dual nationality. "I qualify to apply in a year, so you never know," he said. Within two months, coach Raymond Domenech had given him a debut against Serbia.

In France, though, there have always been question marks about his defensive qualities. Remember it was Clichy's foul on Birmingham City's Stuart Parnaby in February 2008, conceding a penalty converted for a 2-2 draw, that triggered a bizarre protest from captain William Gallas and Arsenal's subsequent capitulation. Clichy was also at fault for the winning goal in France's 1-0 loss to Belarus last September, in Laurent Blanc's first competitive match as coach.

"Clichy's real level isn't what people thought it might be all those years ago," said one seasoned French reporter. "He came into a largely successful and attack-minded Arsenal team, so his defensive flaws were not exposed early. This one, or the last, France coach believes in him. So it will be interesting to see how he gets on at City, where the coach likes his defenders to defend."

Clichy is now in the position of Cole (although without the ugly farewell), moving on for a payday at an upwardly-mobile club to allow a younger and cheaper player his opportunity. Though Arsenal have been linked with signing a replacement, the likelihood is that Kieran Gibbs, already an England international at 21, will get his chance.

Clichy represents the last link to the Invincibles, and for that reason his departure marks the end of an era. For Arsenal, though, the business of promoting young talent just continues.

Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.

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