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Marouane Chamakh has adapted quickly to the English game since his summer move from France.
Marouane Chamakh has adapted quickly to the English game since his summer move from France.

Wenger's search for next Thierry Henry is over

In Marouane Chamakh, Arsenal have found a "Fox in The Box" to complement their passing play.

Among the many legacies left by Thierry Henry, probably the greatest striker in the history of Arsenal, is a contribution to the jargon of the game.

Henry is credited with making the phrase "Fox in The Box" part of the British football lexicon. It describes a certain breed of modern attacker, a pragmatic and successful finisher, a player with no great interest in elaborate manoeuvres outside the opposition's penalty area, but with a fine sense of his bearings close to the goalmouth.

Definitions of the classic Fox in The Box usually end up heading in the direction of Milan's Filippo Inzaghi, or a player like Robbie Fowler, once of Liverpool.

Henry never used the phrase about himself. He was a great deal more than simply a ruthless, close-range assassin, and proud of what he could contribute to establishing Arsenal as the Premier League club most associated with elegant pass-and-move tactics, with possession and brilliant technique over the last 15 years.

The Fox in The Box became part of Henry's dictionary because he, like Arsenal's supporters, would wonder aloud if this figure was the missing ingredient for a club whose three English titles during the era of Arsene Wenger's management were widely celebrated for their attractive football but never successfully defended.

Arsenal had Henry at his peak, but they never had a Ruud van Nistelrooy or a Didier Drogba. The most celebrated and admired forwards of the Wenger period have been the likes of Henry or Dennis Bergkamp, not Eduardo, the Croatian-Brazilian, or Francis Jeffers, the England international who very obviously suffered under the burden of being designated their potential Fox in The Box.

So when Arsenal made it clear early in 2010 that their forward line - staffed by exciting and creative players like Andre Arshavin and Robin van Persie - would be supplemented this season by Marouane Chamakh, an assumption was that another fox hunt had been launched by Wenger.

Chamakh answered the description of "target man", for his tall stature and excellent heading ability.

Yet his statistics in French league football, where he spent all his career until moving to London and, indeed, in international football, where he has won nearly 60 caps for Morocco, were hardly eye-catching.

Chamakh's record shows 56 goals in 230 Ligue 1 matches for Bordeaux, whom he joined as a teenager.

For Morocco, Chamakh averages only marginally more than a goal every four games.

The statistics mislead. When Chamakh played his last home match for Bordeaux, he received a long, affectionate ovation from fans who appreciated that for the best part of six seasons he had worked harder than any player for the club, that his courage, endeavour and awareness of teammates while leading the line was not just about pursuing personal milestones.

"He needs to be more selfish in his game," one of his former coaches with Morocco, Mohammed Fakhir, once said of Chamakh. "He's too generous."

Bordeaux supporters, who had seen Chamakh's most productive season coincide with the club winning the 2009 French league title, miss him.

But they bear him little grudge for leaving, not even for leaving on a free transfer, his contract having expired.

The lack of a transfer fee certainly helped make Chamakh, 26, attractive to Arsenal. So did the evidence he would thrive in a higher level of competition than the French first division - statistically, he is a far more effective goalscorer in the Champions League than in domestic football. It was thought that with his ruggedness in duels he would cope with the rough-and-tumble of English football.

And the belief that, with his intelligent knock-downs and lay-offs, he would bring the creative footballers of Arsenal midfield into the right areas.

Wenger also knew a bright young man would adapt, culturally. Chamakh was born and grew up in France but chose to represent Morocco, his father's country of birth, after having been capped at junior level for Les Bleus. He might yet have a good career in finance, having achieved good results in accountancy and maths at school.

He is also articulate enough that in regional elections in Bordeaux earlier this year he was listed as a official candidate for one left-leaning party.

His name stood sufficiently low on the list not to have much prospect of actually winning a seat, but he was a valuable asset, because of his popularity with fans, for the Democratic Movement party.

Chamakh said he has settled quickly at Arsenal because of supportive colleagues, singling out Samir Nasri, the French international, for being particularly accommodating.

Relationships on the field have developed equally smoothly. Chamakh may not be quite the prototype of the Fox in The Box, but 10 goals already, and some trademark lion-heartedness as an Arsenal player means supporters are no longer looking so eagerly for that enigmatic creature of the 18-yard area.

sports@thenational.ae

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