Wenger: the making of a legend
Jasper Rees Short Books, 226pp, £14.99
When Arsene Wenger arrived at Highbury in the autumn of 1996, it was as if he had fallen to earth from a distant planet. He spoke English fluently, he knew about football, but there was something mysterious about him. In those days, he wore wire-framed glasses; he was very tall and alarmingly thin. He had been living in Japan and was reserved and rather fastidious. He had a degree in politics and economics from Strasburg University. He neither talked nor looked like a football manager, but rather resembled an MEP, switching between languages with ease. The Arsenal players, most of whom were then English, knew what to call him: "the Professor". Rival fans, because of his unsettling difference, also knew what to call him and their insults were brutal and wounding, in the English way.
But Wenger settled in. Little-known French players began to arrive at the club, followed soon after by players from all over the world, establishing a pattern that would leave only five Englishmen remaining out of a first-team squad of 32. Within one season, he had transformed the entire culture of the club, from the way players ate and trained to the style in which they played. For most of their long history, Arsenal had been celebrated for their grim efficiency. There was something enduring about the club - an essence akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance - that underpinned all change. Arsenal sides were invariably hard to beat, but never flamboyant. "Boring, boring Arsenal" was the perennial taunt of opposing fans. Today Arsenal are anything but boring: they are reckless, extravagant, leaders of the new school of uninhibited attacking football.
Arsene Wenger grew up in the contested borderland of Alsace, the son of cafe owners. He was an average footballer, a talented amateur rather than a professional. He began coaching in his early thirties at RC Strasbourg and then, later, at Nancy. From there he moved to AS Monaco, where he lived in a small apartment, spending most of his time, if Jasper Rees is to be believed, watching football on television or studying videotapes of matches from around the world. He had early success at Monaco, for whom he signed Glenn Hoddle and won the French Championship in his first season, but his time there was blighted by match-fixing scandals involving his great rivals Olympique de Marseille, who bought success through bribery.
If Wenger has a failing, it is his tactical rigidity. He is no strategist. His Arsenal teams invariably play in the same way; they are predictable in their unpredictability. They have none of the defensive solidity of the era of George Graham, whose Arsenal teams, because of the superb defending of a back line led by Tony Adams and Lee Dixon, would scarcely have control of the ball during a game but would often still end up winning 1-0. This perhaps explains why they perform so inadequately in the European Champions League where, against more sophisticated opponents from Italy and Spain, they often appear bereft and baffled.
The recent home defeat by Inter Milan demonstrated Wenger's drastic limitations as a tactician. Arsenal were 3-0 down within the opening 40 minutes but he made no obvious attempt to change his formation, or indeed to introduce new players, until late in the second half when the game was long since lost. The England coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, is far more flexible, making substitutions at half-time or even, in certain instances, in the first half: like a jazz musician, he embraces improvisation.
The Guardian reportedly paid £20,000 to serialise Wenger: the making of a legend, which is in truth a long magazine profile stretched and inflated into book form. Rees is diligent in his research, travelling to Alsace to meet old friends and colleagues of Wenger, and there are good exchanges with Nick Hornby and Tony Adams. But he never spoke to Wenger, and so we remain just as unenlightened as before about this intriguing man.
The mystery of Arsene Wenger is perhaps that there is no mystery. Great claims are made for his intelligence but it is not difficult to appear intelligent among footballers and those who write full-time about the game. More interesting - and overlooked by Rees in his hagiography - is Wenger's preference for black players over white (he once spoke of the natural athleticism of African players and those from the black diaspora), and for imports over indigenous British players.
Is there something technically inadequate about English players? Tony Adams would disagree - indeed, he claims that the Arsenal League Championship-winning team of 1991, featuring ten Englishmen (six of whom emerged from the club's own youth ranks) and a Swede, would beat the present side. He is probably right.
For all his tactical limitations, Wenger is worthy of celebration. With his polyglot sophistication, his interest in physiology and sports science, his fondness for gnomic utterances, his familiarity with other cultures and his self-restraint, he was a new kind of coach. There had never been anyone like him before in English football. Without his example and influence, there would have been no Claudio Ranieri at Chelsea or Gerard Houllier at Liverpool, nor Sven-Goran Eriksson in the England camp. He was a pioneer, a footballing progressive, but perhaps it is now time for him to move on.