Lockdown Leaders: No.3 – Arsene Wenger

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During the lockdown period I’ve referred in these ramblings to three individuals in sport whom I hold up as really good examples of leaders.  Two of them – Mike Brearley and Duncan Fletcher – I’ve covered before. Today, fittingly, this being FA Cup Final week, with the team he led to no fewer than seven triumphs in the competition taking part once again, it’s the turn of the third: one Arsene Wenger.

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me to learn that I love Arsene Wenger. Sure, he’s a very stubborn man, and a very frustrating one at times, especially toward the end of his 22-year tenure as manager of Arsenal. But the way he transformed the club (indeed transformed much of the thinking at the top table of English football); his prudent financial management; his eye for talent, especially in the early years; the quality of the football we supporters enjoyed; the team’s consistent performance year in, year out; and his unswerving loyalty to the club he worked for – well, taken together, it’s clear that he made quite an impact. And he couldn’t have done that without being a very special man and a highly capable leader.

During the fag end of the George Graham era supporting Arsenal wasn’t exactly what anyone would call fun. We had a world class goalkeeper, arguably the most famous back four in English domestic football history, and of course we had Ian Wright being, well, Ian Wright. The gaps were filled in by, not putting it too unkindly, five relative nondescripts: Selley, Morrow, Jensen, McGoldrick, Hillier, Kiwomya, Helder… take your pick. Game plan: keep out the opposition, get the ball to Wrighty, nick a goal, one nil to the Arsenal and all that. Perfect for cup runs. But it wasn’t pretty. Graham left (under a cloud) and Bruce Rioch came in for a year but that wasn’t the happiest of fits by all accounts, and by the beginning of the 1996-7 season Arsenal were looking for another manager.

I remember when the announcement was made. “Arsene who?” Yes it was cool that his name sounded like the name of the club he was going to manage – and we had to wait a while as he saw out his agreement with Nagoya Grampus 8 in Japan, an early indicator of his religious observance of contracts – but even though I prided myself on a reasonably extensive football knowledge even I’d never heard of him. He immediately signed a reserve midfielder from AC Milan, a young Frenchman of whom none of us had ever heard. A few weeks later and Patrick Vieira was on the field and dominating the play. Shortly afterwards, Wenger himself was in town. A new era was up and running.

Somehow we’d lured Dennis Bergkamp to Highbury in 1995. I still don’t know why he chose Arsenal but here was a genuinely world class footballer, in his pomp, playing for my team. Wenger would have seen him as the type of player he could build a style around; with Wright and the back five unit, he’d have thought ‘there’s something I can work with here.’ Back then no club really had what we nowadays trot out as a brand of football (everyone now has ‘a brand’). If there was a brand under Graham it could only be described as functional. Well, I suppose attritional would do as well. Or boring. But you get the drift. It wasn’t very interesting. Wenger completely changed the way the club played. He introduced a whole new dynamic. He developed a real brand. It’s not too wild a claim to make when saying that he changed the way the whole club operated, from top to bottom.

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He built a phenomenally good team.  Double winners (Premier League and FA Cup) in both 1998 and 2002, the Arsenal team of 2003/4 went into history as ‘the Invincibles’: the first team to go through an entire league season unbeaten since Preston North End in the league’s very first season back in 1889.  The football they played around that time was incredible. So quick. Between 2001 and 2006 the pace at which Wenger’s team played was amazing.  He won seven FA Cups. Reached two European finals. Saw a team of his go 49 matches unbeaten. Developed some proper superstar footballers.

So how did he do it? Well, with a whole mix of ingredients. Shorter, sharper training sessions to help players focus on one particular skill; a variety of drills – balls not being allowed to leave the floor, goals in the corners, specific patterns repeated; endless stretching, pre-stretching before the stretching even; a microscopic focus on diet, nutrition, hydration and sleep patterns – sweets and alcohol banned, broccoli and more broccoli; everything in training timed to the second; recruitment based on science and personality as well as on-field ability. The players took a little while to get used to it all. Wenger wasn’t a great talker at half time either, which they wouldn’t have been used to under Graham and Rioch. No Scottish manager tea cup throwing if things weren’t going according to plan. He was quiet, measured, said very little until the team was about to go back out for the second half, and then it was generally one or two simple points and no more. A tub-thumper he was not.

A few of the managers around him were understandably suspicious. Who was this bloke? He’d only played the game at a low level. And he came from a club in Japan? Japan! What on earth could he possibly know about our game? After winning the title in his first full season the answer came through loud and clear: quite a lot, actually. It was all revolutionary. And within a few years everyone was doing the same thing.

At the time some of the methods he had introduced were ridiculed, by fellow managers and the media. Even one or two of his own players privately questioned his ideas. But they learned to acknowledge the positive impact they were having. The dietary changes and all the stretching helped. Full back Lee Dixon reckons his career was extended by three years as a result. The consensus now is that all of the innovations Wenger introduced completely changed the Premier League. What he was doing as a pioneer back in the late ‘90s is now de rigueur, bog standard, normal.

In 2006 Arsenal moved home from Highbury, where they’d played since 1913, a few hundred yards down the road to a new site at the Emirates Stadium. To me, it meant a five-minute stroll turning right out of Arsenal tube station, as opposed to five minutes left, but the difference when you got there was stark. I absolutely loved Highbury (where do you think the company name comes from?) but the two venues just couldn’t compare. 38,000 capacity compared to 60,500. All those padded seats. Plenty of space, inside and out. Giant screens. Eardrum-crushing PA system. Megastores a-go-go. More food and drink outlets you could shake a lukewarm hot dog at. And Wenger’s part in its design shouldn’t be underestimated. Even to the extent of the feng shui design of the dressing rooms.

The same can be said of the training facilities. For the 1997/8 season Wenger had signed a young French striker by the name of Nicolas Anelka. He cost just £500,000. When he left – just a couple of years later – and in a bit of a strop, if truth be told, egged on by his brother, who was also his agent, he cost Real Madrid a cool £23 million. Many believe this bit of business alone was what effectively paid for what was at the time one of the most advanced training facilities in the world – ten pitches, all with undersoil heating and sprinkler systems, hydrotherapy pools, the works. And again, Wenger’s imprint was all over it, even the kitchen designs.

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I love his urbanity, his intelligence, and the fact that compared to all the standard management clones of the era – Allardyce, Pulis, Redknapp, Pardew – he was an intergalactic leap away. When two of his players – Nwankwo Kanu and Marc Overmars – ignored the convention of giving the ball back to the opposition after they had kicked it out of play to allow a team-mate to be treated and contrived to go on and score, Wenger immediately went on TV after the match and offered Sheffield United a replay (the goal meant Arsenal had won 2-1). At press conferences, one of the many tedious aspects of modern football, when journalists clamour for meaningless scraps they can somehow twist convolutedly into stories, he would always answer every question fully and honestly. He was humble. He was interesting. And for him football wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all. He hated losing, of course. He was a shocking loser: grumpy, taciturn, distinctly ungracious. But although football consumed him, he saw the world beyond the prism of football. He was a deep thinker.

Although he stayed with Arsenal for 22 years the second half of that spell was, in truth, in stark contrast to the first. Because the new stadium had to be paid for, he was much more restricted in the transfer market. He managed to keep the team in the qualifying places for the Champions League throughout that time, but the self-sustaining financial model Arsenal adopted (and assumed would become the norm after UEFA introduced its much-trumpeted Financial Fair Play initiative) never bore fruit. By the time the club had paid off the stadium debt Russian oil barons and Gulf state royal families had bought their way into other clubs with their petro-squillians of dollars, elbowing Wenger and his financial prudency rather roughly out of the way in the process. The goalposts had moved. His loyalty must have been tested on quite a few occasions, especially during those last years. He would have been high on the lists of all of the big continental clubs at one point or another, but he always stayed loyal.

His stubbornness in those later years is the stuff of legend among Arsenal fans. Many of the deficiencies that are still evident in 2020 were there years before. Weaknesses in central defence, a paucity of leaders on the field, an absence of quality ball-winning midfielders, an inclination to allow contracts to run down: seemingly not a lot has changed since he left. He should have stood down after the 2017 FA Cup Final win, in my opinion. Some of the stick he got in his final years, though, was embarrassing. However much people wanted a change, and a change was needed, shouting, hurling juvenile abuse about on social media and holding up ‘Wenger Out’ placards was all a bit pathetic, frankly. I was in the crowd on the day of his final home league game – a 6-0 thumping of Burnley – and the ovation he received was rightly acclamatory. What he did for Arsenal Football Club was astonishing. But his time had come. It’s only now that we really appreciate the full extent of his achievement.

Listen to his players and you begin to get a measure of the man. The respect for him is enormous. He treated his players like adults, and he expected them to behave as adults. He would always defend them in public, occasionally embarrassingly so – ‘I didn’t see the incident’ became a Wenger staple. And where he conveniently managed to avoid seeing any contentious incident he always retained a real eye for talent. Some of the players he developed or signed were a joy to watch.

I’ve followed Arsenal for close on 50 years and I couldn’t conceive of the high quality of football the team would end up playing just ten years after George Graham left in 1995. As Wenger himself said, in my favourite of all of his quotes, after a 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough in the late ‘90s: “If you eat caviar every day, it’s difficult to return to sausages.” Well, we’re certainly eating sausages now, Professeur. Plenty of them. He was a footballing alchemist.

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This weekend is the FA Cup Final, Arsenal’s 21st in total. They’ve won 13 of them to date, Wenger havign been in charge for seven of them. That’s as many as Liverpool have won in their entire history. Indeed, if you take Arsenal out, only three teams have won it more than he has. But winning trophies is one thing. To have transformed the whole image of the club, revolutionized the science of the game in England, developed world class training facilities and helped to oversee an expensive stadium move, taken with the consistently high quality (‘brand of’) technical football he introduced and maintained, makes him one of the most important sporting leaders of recent times.

As I say, I love him. And I will always appreciate what he did. His leadership style is one I admire. His book comes out in October. I can’t wait. As we Gooners say, ‘Arsene Knows.’