I’ve been criticised recently for being ‘anti-Wenger’, which I’m not. I’m just pro-Arsenal. I also believe that however goods things are, there is always room for improvement. A wise lady once said to me, “Unless you strive for perfection you’ll never achieve it.” That’s why I criticise; that’s why I’m never satisfied. Not because I think perfection can ever be achieved for more than a fleeting moment, but because it’s always worth trying to get closer to it. Like a moth chasing a bicycle light, unless you keep trying to get there you’ll soon end up a long way away.
Let me tell you what I think of Arsène Wenger.
In 1996 Arsenal were going downhill as a result of George Graham’s lack of imagination and complete failure to build on the crop of young home grown players he was lucky enough to inherit. Bruce Rioch had steadied the ship but was never going to take the club anywhere: he was an old-style manager whose time had gone. He believed that you had to have been a top player to be a top manager, and British football was best. His record since leaving Arsenal shows that the Board were right not to indulge him too long. Wenger on the other hand never played at a high level, and thus he doesn’t have the false beliefs that still dog English football. Because management is different to playing. The best players rarely make the best managers, because the best players play largely by instinct. The best managers are the thinkers, not the ex-pros trying to recapture their youth. Arsène knows this.
In his time at Arsenal, Wenger has been supported all the way by a Board who have never had knee-jerk reactions. They may sometimes be too slow to make decisions or even too feeble-minded to notice a decision needs to be made, but either way the effect is the same: there is never an over-reaction. One game really makes no difference, even if it’s losing 3-0 to Chelsea at home. The media and pundits look too short-term. The number of times the title race is proclaimed as over from January onwards, only to see it back on again two weeks later, demonstrates this. Arsène knows it.
Nearly every club wastes money in the transfer market. Some clubs don’t even try to get value, they’re too busy buying big names to appease the fans or to go along with this season’s manager (Spurs and Newcastle are classic examples). Arsène is the first person in English football to beat the transfer market consistently since Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. And when I say beat the market, I mean he can sell players for more than he paid, even after several years of great service. Spending big money on transfers doesn’t guarantee winning the league, as Liverpool demonstrate quite well. Arsène knows this.
Sure, he’s missed out on some players by waiting, but generally he’d rather buy too young than too old or not at all. Once he’s got youngsters in he waits till they get to their early twenties to fully work out their potential before, if necessary, ditching them – that’s one reason players rarely if ever go on to better things after leaving Arsenal. We end up with a huge squad of 17-21 year olds while he waits to see which ones turn into top class performers, but that’s the price we’ve had to pay. He also knows not to be led astray by short-term hype, and not to buy based on one World Cup or Euro finals (Milan Baros, anyone?). Most managers still don’t get this. Arsène does.
Much evidence has shown that players’ performances start to decline as soon as they hit their thirties, if not before. Arsène knows this. The first club to use science to address the problem was Milan. They don’t reveal their secrets, but whatever they do, it works. Maldini was 38 in 2007 when they won the Champions League; Inzaghi who scored both goals in the final was 33. Arsène famously extended the careers of the squad he inherited, but he doesn’t have the Milan Lab behind him to keep everyone going as long as Maldini. But he does know better than anyone in football when it is time to let a player go. His record of getting the best from players is truly incredible. When a player is past his peak, Arsène knows.
Many say that Arsène indulges his players too much, and he probably does. But if he makes sure that when a foreign lad arrives on our shores he feels at home, because the club has arranged for his girlfriend or some of his family to come with him, has found him a nice house in a good area, has sorted out a school for his kids if applicable, has got a proper programme of English lessons available if needed, then that player is not going to be distracted by finding his life in a mess off the field. He’ll play a lot better as a result. Look at Nicolas Anelka: well looked after at Arsenal, and by all accounts he was happy, it was his brothers who wanted him to move so they could leech off him. Real paid £23 million for a shy, socially awkward, immature, self-centred and not very intelligent teenager, then did nothing to help him settle in. The story goes that on his first day at the Bernabeu no one even allocated him a locker or introduced him to the other players, so he kept trying to claim lockers and was moved on by his unwelcoming new team mates. When he later complained to the coach that the other players wouldn’t pass to him, he was ignored. It’s no wonder he failed in Madrid. Arsène would have seen that coming.
However much you criticise the Board, they allowed David Dein to bring Arsène to Highbury. Think how revolutionary this was. The easy thing to do have done would have been to appoint a British ex-pro, a manager who would have continued to do everything the way it was always done in English football. If an Allardyce or Redknapp had failed, so what? The fans collectively shrug their shoulders and move on. If a nerdy Frenchman had failed the Board would have been slaughtered. Most managers in England are chosen because they’re available and they won’t cause a riot among the fans. This pretty much limits it to white, middle-aged male ex-pros. Arsène single handedly removed most of the objection to foreigners – now the complaint from the ignorant is that there are too many, just when English football is starting to learn from them!
So Arsène is – or was – a great manager. The greatest managers in English football have generally either died in their posts (Chapman) or walked away (Busby, Shankly, Paisley); only Clough that I can think of just couldn’t give it up. Clough kind of has an excuse, because once Taylor had gone he was only half the manager, but was desperate to prove that wasn’t true. Arsène is a one man band, so if he’s going downhill, what’s his excuse?
From the outside it seems obvious that these days Arsène could do some things better. It hasn’t always been like that, but now it is. It’s fine being a one-man band, but there are some tunes you just can’t play so well. Lyon have revolutionised French football in an even greater way than Wenger did in England, but their record-breaking seven consecutive titles from 2002 onwards were under three different managers. The Board and all the coaching staff at Lyon work as an integrated machine, of which the manager is but one cog. Liverpool in the 1970s and ’80s had a less formal version of that in the boot room. To me there’s a lesson there. Where is the alternative view for Arsène to consider?
It saddens and annoys me that a truly great manager has seemingly become blind to his own faults, and perpetuates problems by a lack of self-awareness. Arsène reportedly doesn’t read newspapers and doesn’t care what others think of his team or his methods. That is really his, and our, great tragedy.
A version of this article first appeared in The Gooner, issue 211.
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