I haven't seen Arsène Wenger smile in ages, but in the last week I've seen him smile every single day. Last Sunday, a contingent of 23 players, coaching staff and club officials including Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis, traveled to the Far East for the club's first international tour for 12 years. Upon his arrival in Malaysia, Mr. Wenger looked genuinely pleased to be back in Asia eliciting memories of his time in Japan as manager of Nagoya Grampus. He said:
We know we have a big fan base in Asia. We are happy to meet our fans in Asia and to expand our fanbase in Malaysia. We decided to come to Asia because we know how important it is to develop our name in Asia and to meet people and followers of the whole team. I think we've found a good balance between not disturbing the preparation physically and coming to Asia because we have a short trip [and] maybe it will be a bit more demanding physically but overall in the second week of the season you can afford to do that.
When asked about Cesc Fabregas, he answered emphatically with a smile that he would be at the club next season; a marked departure from his usual angry disposition when speaking about the never-ending transfer conundrum with Barcelona.
Football is not the only agenda on the Asia Tour this year. On the second day of the tour, Arsène Wenger hosted a Q&A session with 50 Malaysian businessmen. The club's official website described the meeting as follows:
The manager, once again, demonstrated his incredible public speaking prowess, discussing how football management relates to business management. He answered questions such as how to deal with egos, whether he re-evaluates his tactics during losing streaks and how he finds a balance between successful business and producing fine art, and even quoted famous philosophers along the way. ('The only way to deal with death is to turn each day that proceeds it into art' was his answer to the latter question.)
The audience was spellbound and gave him a standing ovation. If this tour is as much about promoting the club's image to a new fanbase as it is about playing football, then Arsène's presence at such events is priceless. It's difficult to imagine any other manager in the world, let alone the Premier League, holding court in such fashion with 50 Asian entrepreneurs.
After the disappointments of last season, I always felt that the team, manager inclusive, needed some time away from all that is usual for reflection and possibly to rebuild team spirit and confidence. The Asia tour has afforded the team an opportunity for this and to also connect with a different section of the fanbase. Different in terms of geographical location as well as culture.
The Emirates Stadium is sometimes said to be lacking in "soul." That cannot be said of The Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur as it was nearly half full on Tuesday night as the team held an open training session in front of thousands of football crazy fans. On Wednesday, as the team took on a Malaysia XI side in a game that ended 4-0 in favour of Arsenal with goals from Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Carlos Vela and Tomáš Rosický, the reported attendance was over 70,000 more than the Emirates Stadium can hold. You would have thought Arsenal were playing at home. Arsène Wenger described it as a genuine enthusiastic love!
The reception in China was rapturous as hundreds of fans welcomed the team from Malaysia after which the squad took a Dragon Boat trip on the West Lake in Hangzhou which was well enjoyed by all the players. In my own opinion, I believe preseason will never be the same for Arsenal. Unlike other top Premier League teams, Arsenal have often shied away from long distance tours but I believe that the Asia tour has opened the eyes of the club to the immense benefits of a proper overseas tours both from a commercial perspective, as well as on the footballing side. I do think next year Arsenal will embark on a similar tour on a larger scale.
All we can do is hope that the squad retains its core structure and the manager reinforces as promised. Arsenal play Hangzhou Greentown today after which they return to London for the next phase of their preparations for the new season. I can only wish them the best.
Until next time...Victoria Concordia Crescit.