2010, Arsène Wenger has just been voted by the International Football Federation of History and Statistics (IFFHS) the best coach of the last decade. It was 5 years since he won a major trophy. Two trophyless seasons have passed for Wenger and his Arsenal team; his detractors would argue that this honour was undeserved.
According to the IFFHS it was Wengers’ consistency in the ten year period which earned him the award, a ten year period which saw Champions League qualification season on season, 2 Premier League titles and 3 FA cups.
The IFFHS adds ‘(Wenger) repeatedly mould(s) young players into an attacking and technically brilliant way of play’. What drives the man to consistently compete with Europe’s elite? Where did this trust in youth develop? Why does this intriguing and to some Arsenal fans infuriating coach stay so passionate to a game that has given him everything but recently taken so much.
The answer is simple….…a love for a game so strong, Wenger once described as ‘a matter of life and death’.
Wenger has always been around football…..and food. His parents owned a restaurant in their home village of Duttlenheim in Alsace, a small region in eastern France bordering Germany. The restaurant became the informal club house for Duttlenheim Football Club. An unpretentious pub of a restaurant where motivational team talks were given, fixture lists and team sheets pinned on the walls and where tactical conversations became rows.
It was playing for Duttlenheim as a defender through his teens and early twenties where Wenger caught the eye of mentor and major influence on his coaching, Max Hild. Hild was manager of Duttlenheim’s local rivals, AS Mutzig. After developing a friendship with Hild, Wenger made the move to AS Mutzig. In Xavier Rivoire’s revealing biography of Wenger he sums up the young man’s relatively unassuming playing career by explaining that Wenger ‘had effectively emerged in the Mutzig team too late at 20 to forge himself a career as a professional footballer, (although) his education in the tactics of the game was well under way.’ Wenger himself, in an interview with The French Federation of University Sport admitted playing high level football too late ‘I only began training seriously at 19, I was not entirely bad, but there were better players than me.’ It would be fair to suggest that his own experience explains the importance Wenger puts on developing young footballers.
Alongside Held, Master Wenger would educate himself on tactics employed by rival teams and would often travel across the border into West Germany to watch Bundesliga matches. This experience fed Wenger’s burning desire and where better to watch football than West Germany, as Hild recalls ‘Back then, the Germans were streets ahead of us in France in terms of football development…West Germany were on top of the world game…and had their own attacking style.’ Wenger would analyse the games in meticulous detail. Hild goes on ‘Defence was key, German defenders of that era (60s, 70s) could also attack – they knew their responsibilities.’ It’s interesting to note that Wengers’ teams almost always play with 4 defenders and often deploy attacking full backs. The German defence of the 60s and 70s operated as base on which to attack. Something encouraged by Wenger throughout his career.
In mid 1970s Wenger enrolled at Strasbourg University, studying Economic Sciences but football was always at the forefront of his thoughts. Now
playing for Mulhouse FC and flirting with relegation he met another major influence on his coaching career, Paul Frantz. Considered a deep thinker when it came to football, according to Rivoire he was once offered a coaching role at AC Milan only to turn it down because he didn’t speak Italian. Student and master would share many a train journey to and from training where they would discuss everything to do with the game. Frantz had a reputation of having a scientific approach to football something which Wenger would later implement in his career. Frantz also taught Aimé Jacquet who later coached France to victory at the 1998 World Cup.
In a fortunate twist of fate, Wenger’s first mentor Max Hild took over the reserve team at Racing Club de Strasbourg reserve team. The first team had just qualified for the UEFA Cup and it was decided that Hild’s skills were best used scouting opposition. This left the reserves with an absent manager, cue Arsène Wengers first coaching role.
Wenger would include himself in starting line ups but as he became more engrossed in his coaching role alongside being involved with the youth teams his playing days were becoming secondary. Even in his reserve team coaching role Wenger was already flirting with dietary regimes, isometrics (strength training exercises whilst not changing the bulk of a player) and short but intensive training sessions. All things he would include through his coaching career.
It was now 1983 and after cutting his teeth with Strasbourg’s reserves Wenger became reserve team coach at AS Cannes. After a short spell at Cannes he was offered the role of head coach of Lique 1 club AS Nancy. A mixed spell which eventually saw the club relegated to Lique 2. Wenger’s only demotion to date.
After an ultimately disappointing season one of Europe’s biggest clubs came knocking. In a few weeks Arsène Wenger was AS Monaco’s new manager. He sculpted a team including Glenn Hoddle, Mark Hateley, George Weah, Jürgen Klinsmann and Youri Djorkaeff. He also promoted Lilian Thuram and Emmanuel Petit from the reserves.
Wengers’ Monaco won Lique 1 in his debut season. His only other major honor with Monaco came in the shape of the Coupe de France (the premier cup competition in France.) Although a relatively small haul with such a talented squad, Wengers’ time in France coincided with mass corruption in French football. Marseille, Monaco’s fierce rivals were found guilty of match fixing in 1994.
Corruption made Wenger feel uneasy so when he was approached by Nagoya Grampus Eight’s owners Toyota at a FIFA tactical conference in 1994 he took them up on becoming their manager. Wenger’s time in Japan was enlightening but ultimately frustrating. His players were not as technical as their European counterparts. In Rivoire’s book he describes Wenger’s frustration, ‘after the eight defeat, Wenger, usually so calm and poised, exploded…a question asked to all his players: ‘what are you afraid of?’ He challenged them, wondering whether they considered themselves to be real professionals or not.’
Wenger enjoyed a successful spell in Japan, winning the national cup and becoming the first ever foreign J. League Manager of the Year. Japanese culture has had a major influence on Wenger, as Damien Comolli, former Liverpool and Spurs Director of Football explains, ‘This Zen attitude would allow (Wenger) to make the right decisions in the most pressurised of situations.’ What better place to put this theory to the test than in the fast oven of the English Premier League.
In Alex Fynn’s fascinating book, Arsènal – The Making of a Modern Superclub, he curiously describes the dissolution of Yugoslavia as the starting gun which triggers Wenger’s appointment as Arsenal manager. To summarise, the fall of Yugoslavia led to the war in the Balkans, this caused a sporting embargo placed upon Yugoslavia. The football team were kicked out of Euro 92 and replaced by Denmark. Denmark unexpectedly won the tournament with midfielder John Jensen staring for the Danes. George Graham, the Arsenal manager at the time buys John Jensen. Fynn adds, ‘It is highly unlikely George Graham would have purchased John Jensen…(Jensen) symbolised how Graham had lost his touch.’
Jensen went on to be a flop and Graham was accused of receiving bungs from transfers. Graham was eventually banned from football for two years and replaced by Bruce Rioch as Arsenal manager. In the meantime David Dein, Arsenal vice-chairman had been impressed with Arsène Wenger since his time as Monaco. It’s fair to say that without David Dein, Wenger would never have become Arsenal manager. Dein invited Wenger to meet the Arsenal board whom were equally as impressed with the Frenchman.
Not everyone was as overwhelmed with the new appointment. ‘I can’t say I was overly impressed with Monsieur Wenger’s initial contribution’ was Tony Adams’ first thoughts. Let it be known that Adams later realised Wenger’s immense contribution to the club and to Adams’ career. It didn’t take long for the pair to achieve a mutual respect for one another.
Wenger was now in full stride and implementing everything he had learned into creating a championship winning team. Adams explains the changes Wenger made on players diets, ‘He does set out a diet for the players…(involving) chicken and pasta at lunchtime (and) more raw vegetables.’ Wenger’s first signing Rémi Garde recalls the revolution, ‘little by little, he made our regime more continental, a bit more French…he invited a dietitian to speak to the players and explain that sugar was not good for energy levels, Arsène was able to modify these habits.’
Wenger’s Japanese experience began to influence his decisions. He was impressed with the low levels of obesity in the country. Rivoire the biographer explains, ‘As a result, all the cooked vegetables, fish and rice he had witnessed was meticulously imported into the Arsenal canteen. Proteins were combined with carbohydrates, with chicken breast and broccoli replacing fried chicken and chips.’
Training was also to have a major overhaul as Wenger explains in Fynn’s book, ‘In order that (the players) retain their enthusiasm the boys mustn’t know exactly what’s coming…the two criteria for a good training session is that it is conducted with a good spirit and that there is the satisfaction which is derived from whole-hearted commitment.’ Tony Adams describes a typical Wenger training session, ‘Training can often last only 45 minutes. We will have stretching and a warm-up, then play a 10-minutes each way small-sided game and finish with a run round the pitch.’ Perhaps Adams doesn’t give a lot away out of respect for his former manager. Alex Fynn describes training, ‘with the incidence of midweek matches there tend to be only two rigorous sessions per week during the season. All begin with warm-up exercises and jogging…followed by a number of drills, each lasting around 20 minutes…Invariably the first is a control and pass examination designed to provide the aptitude and confidence to replicate the technique under match conditions…a small sided game follows. It is unusual in that it can feature four goals, one on each side of the pitch, with Wenger’s whistle forcing swift decisions and precise shooting to locate the right target. ‘ Goalkeepers train separately, working on specific goalkeeping drills before joining up with the rest of the squad to end the session in a full scale, full intensity 11 a-side game.
Jean-Luc Arribart, former University teammate and player under Wenger at AS Nancy describes his coaching style, ‘He varied training sessions, keeping written assessments of how the players had fared…he’d introduce lots of different exercises and new approaches, whether in training or tactics, and then he’d sit back and see how we coped with them.’
This trust in people has always been the Wenger way as he describes wonderfully in his interview with the French Federation of University Sport, ‘I believe that one holds his destiny in his own hands.’ In Gianlucca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti’s superb book The Italian Job, Wenger describes this trust in more depth, ‘I am convinced anyone can run training sessions…out of two thousand managers, at least nineteen hundred could run my training session as well as me…the secret of success isn’t in training your team. It is in building your team, choosing the right players.’
Wenger has often chosen the correct players. However, he has never been considered a tactical visionary and has often used 4-4-2. This didn’t change when he joined Arsenal. Rémi Garde describes Wenger’s tactical instruction, ‘The day before a game, he’d explain to us the things we needed to work on in our game, taking into account what we hadn’t produced in recent games and what hadn’t worked well previously.’ Although in recent years Arsenal have deployed a 4-3-3 cum 4-2-3-1 formation, Wenger is still an admirer of the traditional 4-4-2. As he describes in The Italian Job, ‘I think it’s simply the most rational formation in most cases…in fact, it’s the essence of reason. With a 4-4-2, sixty percent of your players are occupying 60 percent of the pitch. No other formation is as efficient in covering space. Of course, it also depends on the players you have. If I had Cafu and Roberto Carlos and both were in great form, then maybe I would also play 3-5-2, because I know they can both cover the whole flank on their own…alas I don’t …I have to use 4-4-2, so that I can cover my flanks.’ With the impetus of modern football in winning the central midfield battle and with the importance of possession, especially in European competition, Wenger has adapted to the 4-3-3. This formation allows greater numbers in central midfield but can also provide attacking width.
Wenger’s obsession with constantly adapting is best showcased in the scouting process of Bacary Sagna. Giles Grimandi, ex player and now scout for Arsenal, describes to Fynn, ‘I saw Bacary Sagna on more than 30 occasions. I checked him once, then ten times, then 20 times before finally deciding he was the one we needed.’ Gone are the days of John Jensen being signed after one eye catching performance.
In the Italian Job, Wenger describes the three components on what makes a good manager, ‘The first, obviously, is results and the quality of football shown on the pitch. However, you must always remember that these are short-term results…The second parameter is the ability of the manager to help players progress on an individual level…Finally, the third parameter is the impact the manager is having long-term at club level…and here we go into the philosophy of play, the club’s infrastructure, the image of the club.’
A philosophy has been created at Arsenal. A philosophy including style, forward thinking and hard work. Wenger‘s work station is an unassuming yet bright office at Arsenal’s training complex in London Colney. A site Wenger insisted on having input from start to finish. A two-storey shimmering structure with healthcare suites, swimming pools, a therapy centre, gym and cafeteria. All rooms lit using diffused lights to enable footballers to reduce stress and to enable the release of dopamine (good mood hormones.) Outside are many match quality training pitches complemented with an indoor 4G rubbercrumb pitch.
Wenger can relax in his office in the knowledge that he has achieved the first two of his three parameters on what makes a good manager. His teams play with style and are successful in doing so, albeit less in recent years. Secondly, He has played a huge role in the further development of individual players. There were five Arsenal academy graduates who played at Euro 2012 (Wojciech Szczesny, Sebastian Larsson, Ashley Cole, Cesc Fabregas and Nicklas Bendtner.) What about the third parameter? The legacy he will leave, the club’s philosophy, the image of the club? I, as with many football fans are in no doubt that this will be achieved. As for ever winning coach of the decade again? There is work to be done but the future always seems to be of great importance to Wenger. As a wise man once said, ‘I believe that one holds his destiny in his own hands.’
Arsène Wenger The Biography Xavier Rivoire Aurum Press Limited
Arsènal The Making of a Modern Superclub Alex Fynn Vision Sports Publishing
Addicted Tony Adams with Ian Ridley Harper Collins Publishers
The Italian Job Gianlucca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti Bantam Books
Sport U Magazine French Federation of University Sport