Portrait of an icon: Arsene Wenger

Date published: Wednesday 23rd November 2016 9:55

The Portrait of an Icon book, out next year, will contain eight manager portraits. As a teaser here is one: Arsene Wenger…

It’s an odd way of judging a football manager’s tenure, but it would be easier to ignore Arsene Wenger’s trophy cabinet. The legacy of his first decade of success at Arsenal has, in some supporters’ eyes, been destroyed by a more recent slide into stagnation and transfer market unease. For every argument there is a counter, for every defender a staunch critic, for every Wengerite a #WengerOut.

Divisiveness is the inevitable result of long-term familiarity. Familiarity breeds both contempt and contentment, but both camps’ views only become more entrenched. To some, Wenger is a symbol of sense and patience, for perseverance. To others he is an old dog struggling to learn new tricks while younger models fly past him in the fast lane.

The definitive answer to that question may still come in the future or never at all, depending on Wenger’s achievements before finally leaving the Emirates. The line between consistency and stasis is often drawn depending on the result that ends the pattern. Wenger’s epitaph is yet to be written, so let’s deal in truths.

 

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If Arsene Wenger’s arrival at Arsenal came not quite through chance, his appearance on the radar of vice-chairman David Dein certainly did.

“We met in 1989 at the old Highbury stadium,” Dein recalled in September 2016. “By chance he was just passing through for one day before going back to Monaco. I met up with him and said, ‘Well what are you doing tonight?” He said, “Nothing”. I said, ‘Well would you like to come out with my wife and me for dinner, we’re going to a friend’s house’. Astonishingly the next word he said changed all of our lives. He said, ‘Yes I would’. So we went out for dinner and at the end of our dinner we played charades.”

After being impressed by Wenger’s manner and knowledge, Dein became transfixed. He first suggested him for the job in 1995, but his risky, left-field, distinctly foreign-sounding nomination was rejected by the club in favour of Bruce Rioch. When Rioch departed after 14 uninspiring, if not wholly unsuccessful, months, Dein’s proposal was finally given the green light. It would change not only Arsenal, but English football, forever.

 

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If Wenger was under any illusion about the tide of opinion against – or at least mistrust of – him, the naysayers did not take long to clear their throats. “At first I thought, what does this Frenchman know about football?” captain Tony Adams said. “He wears glasses and looks more like a school teacher. He’s not going to be as good as George Graham. Does he even speak English properly?”

The media were even more blatant in their parochialism. ‘Arsene Who?’ read the infamous Evening Standard headline about a manager with a French league title and a Manager of the Year award from his time in Japan. The Sunday Mirror used a familiar comedic trope, declaring that Dein would struggle to persuade people that Wenger was ‘like Rory Bremner auditioning for ‘Allo ‘Allo, is ‘ow you say fantastique’.

If the English media were guilty of insularity, it was a dish on which they had dined for years. The only other experiment with a foreign manager, Dr Jozef Venglos at Aston Villa, had been an unmitigated disaster. The Czechoslovakian was sacked after a single season with Villa finishing two places above the relegation zone. If Venglos was the victim of a football culture that was unwilling to open its eyes to take in a new landscape, he shared some of the blame.

To look at a list of current managers in England’s top flight now is to take a tour across the globe: France, Italy, Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Argentina, USA and Croatia, at the time of writing. It is wildly speculative to suggest that this managerial globalisation would not have happened without Wenger, but just as foolish to ignore the direct impact of his success. Foreign managers were no longer mysterious, mythical beasts to guard against, but experts to be embraced and enjoyed. The battle against provincialism is still being fought in some quarters to this day, but at least Wenger gave them a sporting chance.

Conversely, examining the list of Premier League managers on Wenger’s opening weekend at Arsenal only hammers home his longevity. Brian Little at Aston Villa and the sadly-departed Ray Harford at Blackburn head an extended list of old school, what-you-see-is-what-you-get Brits including Jim Smith, George Graham, Frank Clark, Joe Kinnear, Peter Reid, Gerry Francis and Graeme Souness. Not one of those 19 men is currently managing in England’s top four divisions. Not one of them were born outside Great Britain and Ireland, and nor were any of their 19 club captains.

Roberto Martinez, now a veteran of seven full seasons of Premier League management, had just been named in the Division Three Team of the year with Wigan Athletic. Yet Wenger continues, if not quite at the top of his game, then close. And so do Wenger’s Arsenal, if not quite at the top of the league then close. Wenger is a statue to permanence, the rock in an ever-changing sea. There is a certain strangeness to English football’s current longest-serving manager being a foreigner. He is 10 years ahead of his nearest rival, and 15 years ahead of third place.

Despite the mistrust from little England, Wenger was no charlatan picked from obscurity. As Dein had already learned, the Frenchman was an obsessive student of the game. During his modest playing career Wenger had taken an active role in training sessions, working towards his coaching badges and taking scouting trips from Strasbourg to Monchengladbach to study training regimes and the impact of nutrition on fitness. This was a manager credited by then-reigning World Player of the Year George Weah for his success, while Glenn Hoddle remembers the clarity of his training sessions as far back as 1987. It was high time England stared into the light.

 

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Wenger’s sense of timing was impeccable. Despite the mockery from some quarters, English football was in no position to spurn offers of progression. After the European glory of the 1970s and 1980s, punctured by the Heysel ban, our clubs had struggled to tread water in continental competition. In the four years prior to Wenger’s arrival, the English champions had failed to progress beyond the second round of the European Cup. In the UEFA Cup, only one of 11 competitors in four years (Nottingham Forest in 1995/96) had got past the third round.

The Premier League, now past its toddler stage and into infancy, was grimly clinging on to the culture of Division One with a few honourable, largely Eric Cantona-shaped, exceptions. The increase in broadcasting revenues and ticket prices was forcing an increase in professionalism, and Wenger was the man to take advantage. He was the Pied Piper for a new era of English football.

Wenger’s impact at Arsenal was immediate. Gone was the drinking culture that pervaded dressing rooms across the land. Gone was ignorance of the importance of nutrition which made fried egg and chips a balanced meal so long as you had tomato ketchup on the side. Gone too were the gruelling pre-season runs and the three-hour sessions without the ball.

Each player was given an individual training regime to hone their physique and maximise their strengths. Players took supplements and vitamins, warmed down after matches and had menus created for pre- and post-game meals. As Stephen Hughes recalls: “He’d get the hotel to tell him and he would pull whoever out and say ‘why did you try to order room service and a pint of Fanta?’”

Crucially, Wenger also understood and celebrated what already worked at Arsenal. Many other managers before and since have been guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, none more so than Brian Clough, who on his first day at Leeds United told his new squad that they ‘could all throw their medals in the bin’. Arsenal’s famous defence of Adams, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn, who were all in danger of missing out on a league now awash with money, understood the importance of extending their careers. Wenger understood the importance to Arsenal of them doing so.

“We were at an age when you begin to get a few niggles and start thinking that retirement isn’t too far away,” Dixon told the BBC in 2006. “Arsene told us he could extend our careers if we followed his advice, so we listened. I played six years under him before I retired, so his methods can’t be too bad.”

Arsenal’s new manager also had an auxiliary at the club in Dennis Bergkamp, who had already won the hearts of supporters and the respect of his peers in his first season. Bergkamp was already a disciple of the value of nutrition and diet from his time at Inter Milan and Ajax, and was a key figure in getting Wenger’s ideas across to the players.

Wenger did not make wine out of water. Arsenal’s manager was permitted to spend money on his squad, but his vast knowledge of the game earned the trust of the board. Rather than established stars, Wenger preferred those in need of parenting, or at least nurturing. Not all worked, but then they never do. For every Francis Jeffers and Igor Stepanovs at Arsenal there is a William Prunier or Massimo Taibi at Manchester United and equivalent examples across the country. This is not a pursuit in which perfection is possible.

After a coasting period following their title victories of 1989 and 1991, Arsenal were now leading the way again. The club that best represented the archaic, working-class drinking culture of Division One was now the first to wake and welcome a new dawn. If Wenger had to drag players forward, they were soon following him through their own accord. For English football in general, this was an epiphany.

It was not just science that Wenger brought to Arsenal, but style. From the ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’, sexy football was born through the arrival and stupendous achievement of Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Nicolas Anelka, Marc Overmars, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Thierry Henry. From scoring 40, 53 and 52 goals in 42-game league seasons before Wenger’s arrival, Arsenal were scoring 85, 82 and 79 goals in 38 matches. They became the ‘entertainers’, with a style and swagger to rival any other European team of the day. Unlike other clubs bestowed with that same tag, aesthetics and achievement were not mutually exclusive.

Wenger could only have achieved his cultural transformation through success, but few even at Arsenal envisaged the heights of his decade of dominance. In Wenger’s first ten seasons they won the league title as many times as the previous 43 years, and the FA Cup as many times as the previous 60. A Champions League final appearance – and unfortunate defeat – in 2006 would come next, but it was the 2003/04 season on which Wenger could truly hang his hat.

Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ may not have been Wenger’s greatest team – that surely came with the title winners in 2001/02, but they were the cast of his annus mirabilis. Any focus on drawn games and defeats in other competitions from rival supporters should be taken as a jealous compliment to Arsenal’s achievement, for they would have bathed in the same sunshine given the chance. Thirty-eight league matches, 26 wins, 12 draws, no defeats.

“It was one of my dreams,” Wenger said. “I learned that season that you can achieve things that you think are not achievable.” In Europe’s major leagues, only Porto (2010/11 and 2012/13) and Juventus (2011/12) have achieved the feat in the last 20 years. The domestic domination of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Paris St Germain has still not matched Wenger’s Arsenal by that measure.

There is no doubt that Arsenal’s (literal) rebuilding years changed Wenger, the construction of the Emirates Stadium shifting his priorities and altering his management style and outlook, perhaps even irreversibly. In recent years he appears weary, despite regular protestations to the contrary. There is an argument too that Wenger should have been more ruthless in his early years and won more trophies in his second decade. Yet the feat of his longevity, so unusual in a game permanently existing in a state of flux, can never be doubted. Even as the debates over Wenger’s legacy continue to roll on ad infinitum, so does the astonishing length of his tenure.

Even if you believe that Arsene Wenger has failed to meet expectations over his last decade, it was only his own magnificence that raised Arsenal’s glass ceiling, thus altering the perception of what they could achieve. Even if you accuse him of failing to adapt as English football changed around him, you must acknowledge that he led the same race throughout a decade of great change and commercialisation. For ten years, the rest of English football took its lessons from Le Professeur.

Daniel Storey – Please help us out and vote for Daniel in the FSF Writer of the Year award.


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