The rise and resolve of Arsène Wenger

How football's auteur transformed the English game.

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The late writer and thinker Mark Fisher once reflected on the significance of teenage cultural discoveries: “Is it possible to reproduce, later in life, the impact that books, records and films have between the ages of 14 and 17?” Something similar may be true of first encounters with football, though these tend to occur earlier – at the age of seven, perhaps, rather than 14. The team one grows up supporting as a child will always be the “real” version of the club, the Platonic squad. You come to know and love each generation of players, but later iterations of the team feel somehow both derivative and chronically new, as if one can never quite get used to them.

If, like me, you are an Arsenal supporter born in the mid-1990s, Arsène Wenger’s 22-year tenure as manager of the club – October 1996 to May 2018 – coincides almost exactly with your lifetime. Wenger’s mythic “Invincibles” squad – so named because they pulled off the astonishing feat of winning the Premier League in 2003-04 without losing a single game (their 49-game unbeaten run is yet to be surpassed) – holds an unrivalled place in my conception of the club. Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry and co didn’t merely play for Arsenal; they are Arsenal. To my age cohort, Wenger is Arsenal, too – so much so that it’s as if the club did not pre-date his arrival. I think I even half-assumed, in the unexamined way of children, that the club was named after him.

What you may not fully appreciate if Wenger’s Arsenal is all you’ve ever known is the scale of the revolution the Frenchman initiated when he took over. Reading My Life in Red and White having only witnessed the fast, elegant, attacking football that became Arsenal’s signature under Wenger, it can come as a shock to be told, or reminded, that prior to his arrival, the club were known as “boring Arsenal” because of their dour defensive style. When Wenger arrived in north London in 1996, he was met with a squad of tough, experienced thirtysomethings who snacked on Mars Bars at half-time and drank heavily in the week.

The extent of the transformation Wenger effected is partly obscured by the fact he was a trailblazer. The techniques he pioneered – “invisible” training, a holistic approach to player preparation focusing on everything from psychology to nutrition; data analytics to objectively measure physical performance – are now ubiquitous, as are his international scouting networks. The Premier League as Wenger found it was almost entirely English: clubs had English players, managers and owners (Wenger was only the fourth foreign manager in the Premier League, and the first successful one). The young foreign signings for which he became famous were unprecedented; today an English player in the starting 11 of a top-flight club is noteworthy.

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Wenger was born in Strasbourg in 1949 and grew up in a farming village nearby called Duttlenheim. It was small, religious and insular: there was “the school, the church, the town hall, the shops and the football ground” – where the grass was mown using a horse – and the train station, where nobody bothered to go. (Wenger seems comfortable in contracted worlds: later, he describes himself as living in Arsenal, not London, since he so rarely ventured beyond his house, the training centre and the stadium.) His parents owned a bistro, La Croix d’Or, which doubled as the local football team’s headquarters, and which Wenger describes as “my school” for “observing individuals and how groups worked”. “It was like so many Alsatian bistros: open every day, heated by a stove in the middle, about 20 tables, filled with men who drank one beer after another and smoked unfiltered Gauloises and talked non-stop about football.”

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The bistro was as convivial as his family was taciturn: his parents “worked from morning to night” – a habit Wenger inherited – and they “never ate together and talked very little”. Yet Wenger’s childhood doesn’t sound unhappy: it was dominated by his burgeoning obsession with football. After an undistinguished playing career culminating at RC Strasbourg, where he first dabbled in coaching as head of the training academy, Wenger signed his first professional managerial contract with Nancy aged 34. A few years later he took over at Monaco, where he stayed for seven years – their longest-serving manager – and first encountered a young Thierry Henry.

Then, in 1994, he moved to “a rough industrial city, with no particular attractions” called Nagoya in Japan. The J.League, which had been formed only the year before, paid well and attracted talented players at the time. Wenger took charge of the bottom-of-the-league Nagoya Grampus Eight, before accepting the top job at Arsenal in 1996.

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Wenger’s Arsenal career, to borrow a favourite idiom of pundits, was a game of two halves. The first decade was one of glorious, record-breaking success – including two doubles (winning the Premier League and the FA Cup in the same year), and the 2003-04 “Invincibles” season. A new era dawned in 2006. After a devastating loss to Barcelona in the Champions League final – a game Wenger hasn’t been able to rewatch since – Henry, the all-time top-scorer for the club, departed (as did Pires; Vieira had left the year before). After 2004 Wenger never again won the Premier League, and after triumphing in the FA Cup the following year, he wouldn’t win another trophy until 2014. In 2018, after a couple of seasons of persisting through intensifying calls to resign – a divisive period, painful or exasperating to behold, or both, depending on your perspective – Wenger departed. The club finished sixth in the Premier League, its worst result in his career.

This fallow period for silverware was frustrating for fans accustomed to success, but Wenger understands his mature phase differently and has claimed to be prouder of what was achieved in this more “difficult” decade. The year 2006 was also when Arsenal left Highbury, now converted into flats (Wenger considered buying one but decided it would be too sad), and moved to the Emirates, which has 60,000 seats (Highbury’s capacity was 38,000). The relocation and the (relative) decline were not coincidental: the huge loan Arsenal had taken out to build the new stadium – which ended up costing £390m – left the club financially exposed. To service the debts, it had to consistently pack the stadium, repeatedly qualify for the Champions League, and sell its best players. (Wenger’s dogged fiscal discipline in bringing the club back into the black – he has a degree in economics from the University of Strasbourg – seemed to many a product of obstinacy rather than necessity.)

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Instead of underachievement in those cash-strapped years, Wenger sees a hard-fought consistency – his team finished in the top four in all but his final two years – and sustainability. Much is made of the style and ethos Wenger instilled at Arsenal, but his legacy is also concrete. He oversaw the construction of both the Emirates and a modern training centre (when he arrived the team was using University College London facilities that were “20 years out of date”), and the club is now in a strong financial position.

Then there are his former players – including Arsenal’s current manager, Mikel Arteta. I used to assume Wenger’s nickname, “the professor”, referred to his sophistication, but it suits his pedagogical gifts too. He loves to win but his overriding passion is helping players develop, preserving in adults the child’s ability to improve. Wenger himself received no formal coaching until the age of 19, hence his lacklustre playing career and his emphasis as a manager on constant progress and “the permanent quest for excellence”.

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Arsenal’s trajectory – astonishing rise, drop, then plateau – was not just determined by internal changes in the club’s circumstances, but by broader developments in English football. As Wenger’s innovations lost their novelty, and with it their competitive edge, the financial side of the game changed dramatically, too. Since Wenger started at Arsenal, television revenues have soared, while the influx of cash from billionaire owners buying superstars for astronomical sums – using what Wenger sometimes refers to as “artificial resources” – has radically altered the Premier League.

With the new money came changes to the corporate structures of clubs: according to Wenger, when he arrived, Arsenal employed 70-80 people; by the time he left, there were 700 staff. Like his rival, the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, Wenger was an auteur – able to influence practically every aspect of a club, from training sessions to transfers to contracts. The conditions for this freedom and power have largely disappeared. The sheer longevity of managers like Wenger and Ferguson is difficult to imagine now.

I said that the Invincibles are the “real” Arsenal to me, but in fact the glory of the early 2000s is shrouded in the haze of deep childhood, absorbed as legend more than known in experience. The pain of the 2006 Champions League defeat, on the other hand – I was ten – is a sharp memory. Perhaps the Arsenal I know and love best is this post-lapsarian Arsenal: underachieving by the standards of the years before, a promising rather than accomplished squad, never dominant but capable of exceptional, stylish football, and “real” in the sense of being funded by what Wenger might call “natural” resources.

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Wenger is famously discreet, but My Life in Red and White – produced with the aid of two translators but no ghost writer – is remarkable for being almost wholly devoid of revelation. The lack of detail is striking: one only discovers his parents’ first names, Louise and Alphonse, from a photo caption. Significant episodes are glossed over: the corruption that beset French football in the 1990s is discussed in cryptic terms; his final four years at Arsenal are covered in about two pages; Unai Emery, his ill-fated successor, isn’t mentioned at all. Wenger is articulate, even captivating in interviews – and was presumably a gifted communicator as a manager – but his fondness for distillation leads to an abstraction that can be colourless on the page.

Wenger’s prose is most convincing when he is writing as a manager, as an expert interpreter of the game: “Passing the ball is communicating with another person… It’s… an act of intelligence and generosity. What I call technical empathy.” But his style often becomes bureaucratic, as if he is writing a coaching manual or his curriculum vitae rather than telling the story of his life: “A club depends on three things in order to grow: strategy, planning and application.”

Of course, managing Arsenal was Wenger’s life: My Life in Red and White is aptly titled. A long appendix to the book, “Career Record”, really is a kind of CV. It includes a list of the 222 players who appeared for him and a statistical summary of each of his seasons in charge of Arsenal. A dry compendium, though under the stats for 2003-04, something for fans to savour: “Heaviest Defeat: Not Applicable”. 

My Life in Red and White: My Autobiography 
Arsène Wenger, translated by Daniel Hahn and Andrea Reece
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 352pp, £25

[see also: English football is at war with itself: its foundations are unstable and its future is uncertain​]

Lola Seaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman

This article appears in the 30 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning

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