The global soul

Arsenal's manager, trained as an economist, has always believed that a football club must operate wi

Nobody now remembers the name of Jozef Venglos. Dr Jozef Venglos. Arriving in England on the back of an indifferent 1990 World Cup as the Czechoslovak coach, he lasted a solitary season as manager of Aston Villa. The then owner of Aston Villa, Doug Ellis, belatedly realised that you will never win anything with doctorates, and got rid of the good doctor.

It took several further seasons before English football again warmed to the idea of a Continental intellectual in the dugout. When Arsène Wenger was appointed manager of Arsenal in autumn 1996, the papers were still inclined to doubt. "Arsène Who?" asked the London Evening Standard. It's true that few had heard of Arsenal's new appointment. There was no playing career to act as his calling card - sure, he'd done a bit in France but, as the consonance of their surnames suggested, the suspicion remained that this Wenger might be a second Venglos. In addition, of all the unlikely places to board a Prem ier ship-bound plane, Tokyo would have to be up there with Ulan Bator and New York. Wenger had just finished a stint as coach of Nagoya Grampus Eight, in the Japanese J-League.

“As a manager, I have become accustomed to not showing my personal feelings”

That was in the mid-Nineties. Back then the Premier League needed Wenger. It just didn't know it did. His philosophy of holistically preparing the footballer's mind and body was not just novel, it was revolutionary. He has unarguably been the single most influential figure in English football in the past dozen years, and possibly more. But the question now unexpectedly being asked about the national game is a sobering one: Does it still need Wenger?

To an outsider it may not sound catastrophic, but Arsenal are struggling to maintain their position as one of the top four English clubs; if they were to finish this season outside the top four, for the first time since Wenger became manager, they would not qualify for Europe's Champions League, with its deep reservoir of television money. To be shut out from the Champions League would only speed their segregation from the elite. Now, more than ever, it is time to wonder whether the virtues that Wenger uniquely embodies - fiscal prudence and bourgeois moderation - have a place in a league where every half-decent club is owned by a foreign plutocrat. Even Arsenal has a foreign leading shareholder: the Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov, with 24.9 per cent.

It was apparent that Wenger was different soon after his arrival when he courageously challenged a pack of doorstepping hacks to repeat the scurrilous rumour about his sexual proclivities doing the rounds on the internet. They backed down. Since then, he has kept not only journalists at arm's length, but also players.

"As a manager," he wrote while in Japan, "I have become accustomed to not showing my personal feelings." It has made him unknowable. "You'll never work him out," Mark Hateley, a former England player, told me when I embarked on my biography of Wenger. In the event, Wenger didn't talk to me, but all his closest friends in France did.

What we do know of Arsène Wenger is that he is not like any club manager this country had ever seen. In the 1980s, English football was a horror show of ugly play and crumbling stadiums. The one saving grace of this pre-moneyed yes teryear was that a small club of limited resources, such as a Norwich City or Sheffield Wednesday, could mount a title challenge. Then, in 1992, the Premier League was established, with exclusive television rights being sold to Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB in a three-year deal worth £305m to the clubs. English football would soon be turned into a gold rush. Everyone wanted a piece of the action.

At the dawn of the new age, Manchester United were England's dominant club until Wenger, sprinkling young Con tinental legs among the old English lags he inherited from the previous regime, transformed boring Arsenal into scoring Arsenal. For several years, a hugely entertaining stand-off between the two clubs and their managers ensued. The pair were from central casting: Ferguson was an irascible Glaswegian shop steward to Wenger's polymath graduate of the new scientific French school: all broccoli, isometrics and gnomic asides. Required to refuel on raw greens in lieu of carbonated pints, his Arsenal squad were fashioned in their maker's image: clinical, measured, thoughtful - only now and then let down by a tendency to blow their top.

Nowadays, Wenger is so much a part of the national furniture that it is difficult to recall how different he once seemed. He emerged, unlike just about any footballer you could mention, from a middle-class background. Born in 1949, he had parents who ran a pub and restaurant in a quiet village amid the vineyards of rural Alsace. The entire region had at various times been subsumed into Germany, most recently during the Second World War, when his father was required to fight for the Reich. This history gives the Alsatian character a separateness that Wenger fully embodies.

His passion for football, along with his talent for academic subjects, found modest expression in the lower French leagues. Wenger was always going to be a better coach than he was a player. He was always asking questions of the fatherly coaches who nurtured him. Once on the managerial ladder, he brought to team pep talks a whiff of the Strasbourg faculty where he studied politics and economics.

This was a football man who thought about more than managing. Lord Hollick told me how once, he had sat down to lunch with Wenger before a north London derby and found himself on the end of a detailed exegesis of the harmonisation of tax among countries that embraced the euro. "I looked at my watch and said: 'It's 25 minutes to go. I don't want to keep you.' He said: 'I think they know what to do. There is no need for me to rush down and give them another briefing.'"

After working as a coach at small French clubs, Wenger landed a job coaching AS Monaco. As with Alsace, the prin cipality's cultural separation from the rest of France suited him. He won the league in his first season. For the next five years Monaco played bridesmaid to their brasher neighbours in the Midi, Bernard Tapie's Olympique de Marseille. As they were snaffling up their fifth consecutive French championnat, a whistleblower exposed Marseille's system of bribing opposing players. Tapie went to jail for this and other felonies.

Wenger has never gone public, but he nursed his suspicions for an entire year over why certain of his own players had suddenly become clumsy. They gave away penalties. They hand-balled, accidentally. Games that should have been won were drawn. Games that should have been drawn were lost. "At the time, it was difficult to prove," Henri Biancheri, his boss at Monaco, told me. "The thing we knew was that Marseille had a very good team. But we all thought, a bit naively, that to become champions of France didn't involve anything other than football."

When an offer came from Bayern Munich, Wenger was refused permission to talk to them, then sacked the next season. He went to Japan as if joining the Foreign Legion: to forget. No wonder the seemingly bitter rivalry with Alex Ferguson caused him such amusement. Wenger would suavely point out that Manchester United had much more money than Arsenal, but at least it was deployed by fair means rather than foul.

This duopoly reigned without interruption until Chelsea was bought for £150m by the Russian oligarch Roman Abram ovich in 2003. In 2004, the club hired José Mourinho, the coach at Porto, and under him Chelsea won two titles in a row. With Abramovich's huge injection of capital into world football, suddenly everything changed for Wenger's Arsenal. Instead of attempting to compete with Chelsea by paying high transfer fees for established stars, Wenger stubbornly took a different approach: he chose to develop young players, bringing them on through the club's youth system.

Wenger's air of entitlement is no longer what it was. Over the years, his philosophy of good practice has caught on. Aside from the odd bit of dogging and roasting, other footballers got fit and stayed fit, and left the headline-grabbing to their Wags. So that advantage is less than it was.

With a recession looking as if it might be here for a longish stay, there is as yet no sign, at least among the elite rich clubs, that retrenchment is on the menu - though there are concerns at Chelsea about how much Abramovich has lost in the credit crunch. Yet refusing to participate in the riotous inflation in transfer fees and, on the whole, players' wages, meant Wen ger always competed for honours with one hand tied behind his back. For years, he was able to rely on his exceptional eye for good young players, often sourced in francophone West Africa, or through long hours spent watching live matches on his wall-mounted screen at home.

The excellence of the club's scouting network still provides a reliable flow of raw talent. But the most expensive, and best, players in the world have long since headed to Chelsea (owned by a Russian), or Manchester United or Liverpool (both owned by Americans). Soon they will be going to Manchester City (owned by Abu Dhabi United: in effect, the ruling family of Abu Dhabi).

It is no longer the case that Wenger won't compete. Arsenal, the only top club still owned by a private group of Englishmen rather than a corporate raider from overseas, now can't compete with the wealth of their Premier League rivals.

Perhaps his one remaining hope is that the huge tidal forces of the economic downturn will come to his rescue. He arrived in this country when English football was busy turning into some kind of guzzling, slurping, belching Tudor banquet. It has been an unedifying spectacle, against which Wenger's intellectual and aesthetic credo was, for years, its saving grace. There are many who have long hoped that football would one day simply eat itself.

If or when it does, the virtues that Wenger embodies should once again have value. The problem is that he might get eaten up first.

Jasper Rees is the author of "Wenger: the Making of a Legend" (Short Books, £14.99)

A SHORT HISTORY OF ARSÈNE WENGER

Born 22 October 1949 in the village of Duttlenheim in Alsace, France, to cafe owners

Undistinguished playing career, mostly amateur football

Gains MA in economics and politics from Robert Schuman University after completing an engineering degree at the University of Strasbourg

Youth coach to Strasbourg in 1981 before moving to Cannes in 1983. Head coach at Nancy and then, in 1987, at Monaco. Wins French League in his first season

Appointed head coach of Grampus Eight in Japan

Appointed manager of Arsenal in 1996

Introduces plyometrics to training instead of isometrics, in order to gain more explosive muscle power. Also brings in health and diet gurus, unheard of in English football

Arsenal win League and FA Cup double in Wenger's second season

Arsenal's new training centre opens at London Colney, 1999

Another League title win in 2004 with an unbeaten season

On 14 February 2005 Arsenal become the first English team to field a 16-man squad without a single player born in the UK

Move to 60,000-seater Emirates Stadium in 2006. Built for £390m, it is designed to generate much higher match-day revenues, enabling Arsenal to remain an elite club

Team lose Champions League final to Barcelona, 2006

Research by Nick Stokeld

FOOTBALL’S CREDIT CRUNCH

  • £3bn estimated debt of the 20 Premier League clubs
  • £620m Chelsea's net borrowing, the largest in the Premier League
  • £8m average annual earnings of Frank Lampard, highest-paid Premiership footballer
  • £1bn the Premiership's wage bill exceeded this amount for the first time in 2007/2008
  • 330 foreign players in the Premiership. They come from more than 60 countries
  • £625m current value of overseas TV rights, double the previous deal, and covering 208 countries in total
  • £50m guaranteed value of television rights for Premiership winners. The bottom club gets £27m

Nick Stokeld