The Redemption of Arsene Wenger: Arsenal's Stubborn Sorcerer Ready to Rise Again

Jim WhiteSpecial to Bleacher ReportSeptember 16, 2015


From the moment he first arrived in September 1996, there was one thing about Arsene Wenger that really struck the Arsenal players.

It wasn’t that no one had heard of him (“Arsene Who?” was the headline in the Evening Standard that announced his appointment). It wasn’t his Frenchness, his professorial appearance or his gangly mannerisms (though, in a neat encapsulation of all three characteristics, the squad christened him Inspector Clouseau).

No, what they noticed was something about him they had never encountered in a manager before.

"He was just so nice," Martin Keown, a member of the formidable defence Wenger inherited, told Bleacher Report. "As a player, you got used to being shouted at, sworn at, told what to do all the time. That’s all you knew. With the gaffer, there was none of that. We just couldn’t believe how he treated us all like grown-ups."

These days, we are in the era of the calm, technocratic football manager, of Eddie Howe, Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez and Garry Monk. It is an era Wenger himself, more by example than design, has been influential in developing. So much so, it is difficult to appreciate quite how revolutionary the Frenchman was when he arrived in England with his niceness, civility and encouragement to his players to find their own solutions.

It was enough for Sol Campbell to recall he was taken aback when he was recruited by Wenger in 2001.

Wenger with Campbell on his signing in 2001.
Wenger with Campbell on his signing in 2001.Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
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"It was (usually) a case of they knew everything and you knew nothing ... With him, it was more, 'So tell me, what do you think?'”

The Arsenal players thought that under this guy, they could go places.

Wenger had been brought to Arsenal by David Dein, the then-vice chairman executive, to replace the brusque incumbent Bruce Rioch. At the time, there were those who insisted Dein had taken a reckless gamble.

In truth, Wenger’s CV wasn't illuminated with glitter at the time. Following a playing career that redefined the term "ordinary," he left his first job as coach at Nancy after the team were relegated, before suddenly being propelled to the top of the French game by taking over at Monaco in 1987.

It was today's equivalent of Burnley manager Sean Dyche being given the Chelsea job. After inheriting the team and bringing in Glenn Hoddle and Jurgen Klinsmann, on the Cote d’Azur, Wenger won both a league and Coupe de France title in seven full seasons before he was dismissed in September 1994 after a poor start to the campaign. He had then appeared to go into reverse, spending a year in the backwaters of the Japanese league.

It was not hard to share the disdainful assessment of the then-Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, who greeted his appointment with the curt quip, "He’s a novice and should keep his opinions to Japanese football."

Dein, however, had long insisted this was the man who could change everything. He had been charmed by Wenger socially in the summer of 1994, when he had invited the Frenchman on board his yacht when harboured in Monte Carlo. They spent the evening hooting with laughter as they played charades together (we can only speculate on the glories of the mime that accompanied the clue “Champions League qualification”).

This was a man of intellect, substance and depth, Dein had concluded on that meeting. Not to mention unusual humanity. It took Dein nearly two years to persuade the rest of the Highbury board that the unheralded Frenchman would be the man to kickstart Arsenal into the new footballing millennium.

Wenger in 2005 with Bergkamp, Pires and Keown.
Wenger in 2005 with Bergkamp, Pires and Keown.Getty

Almost from the moment the new man arrived, Dein was proven daily to have been more than astute in his recruitment.

What Wenger brought with him from France was genuinely radical, ripping into the tired and complacent English managerial tropes. Everything changed.

Keown recalls the astonishment among visitors when they found out there were no longer chips (fries) or ketchup available in the staff canteen; instead, the players were obliged to eat stuff that was good for them, like vegetables and steamed chicken.

Wenger ended, too, the institutionalised drinking that almost cost Tony Adams his sanity after a binge following Euro 1996. He got the players stretching properly, using chiropractors and acupuncturists and even, heaven forbid, had them doing yoga.

But he did all of this by persuasion, not by bullying insistence. The squad were no longer subjected to the sergeant-major yelling of the traditional British manager; suddenly, the players were encouraged to make their own decisions, after Wenger had given them the alternatives.

"The gaffer created this learning environment," Keown said. "And we all just followed suit. That was the way he encouraged us to behave, nudging people in the right direction."

And that nudge was perhaps most obvious on the training pitch. Bob Wilson—who worked for seven seasons as goalkeeping coach under Wenger—recalls that watching the new manager in action was to see something different. Wenger would stand to the side and let the players take control, encouraging them to find their own solutions.

Wenger with Henry, Vieira during 2004 victory parade.
Wenger with Henry, Vieira during 2004 victory parade.Getty

"I remember watching a session with Dennis [Bergkamp] quite early on," Wilson told Bleacher Report. "And he got quite shirty with Ray Parlour. ‘Just hit me with the f-----g ball,’ he shouted. ‘Just give me the ball and move.' Arsene changed the way of playing by letting Dennis show them what to do in training. They got used to passing it in to him really quickly, then moving into space for the return."

Alan Smith, the former Arsenal centre-forward, recalls his old team-mate Adams being blown away by what the players encountered. "He just let everyone express themselves. And for lads used to being told what to do all the time, that was liberating," Smith told Bleacher Report.

But training methods alone do not win titles. There was another advantage Wenger brought with him in those early days: a specialist knowledge of European football. As a result of knowing where to look, he completely outflanked his domestic rivals by bringing in some rare talent at rare value: Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry—the list was substantial and trophy-building.

"The bottom line is to recruit the right players," Wilson said. "Arsene, in those days, was the master. He may not have been a great player himself—I can relate to that—but he knows what one looks like. I remember him saying of Jack Wilshere, ‘the game speaks to him.’ That’s a great quote. It sums up his ability to recognise what makes the best."

Wenger at the Champions League final in 2006.
Wenger at the Champions League final in 2006.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

For nearly a decade, the Wenger methodology worked like a dream, bringing three titles, three FA Cup wins and a Champions League final to the Highbury operation. His knowledge, his intelligence and his philosophy gave Arsenal a substantial competitive advantage over their rivals.

That success culminated in the glories of the Invincibles, a side he built from scratch to remain unbeaten throughout the 2003-04 season, playing the most compelling football in the history of one of the game's grandest clubs. That was the most obvious thing about Wenger: The manner in which success was achieved was always as important as success itself.

"There is a real beauty in the way he gets his sides to play," said Professor Christopher Brown, the art historian and former director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, who is an unabashed admirer of the professor of football. "When on form, there is something very, very attractive about the way they move the ball. It is an aesthetic impulse of Wenger’s. At their best, his teams play with a certain elegance that you would never ever see from others—Chelsea, for instance."

But that 10-year rule of unimpeachable delight, of constantly challenging, of accumulating the richest available talent and allowing it to flourish in the most appealing of football fashions, did not last. Something happened that shifted Arsenal from the top out toward the margins, seizing up the trophy machine. And for some observers, that something could be best summed up in two words: Arsene Wenger.

After Tony Pulis resigned as Stoke City manager in the spring of 2013, an unedifying fact did the rounds on social media: With but one exception, every club in English league football had changed their manager since Arsenal last won a trophy, the FA Cup in May 2005. That one exception was Arsenal.

There were two ways of looking at that statistic. Either the Gunners' hierarchy had a more mature, long-term recruitment policy than any of their rivals, or Arsenal were simply refusing to accept the reality that their man was washed up.

It was pretty obvious which thesis most appealed to Jose Mourinho. In February 2014, Mourinho publicly insisted that his side were not title favourites despite their good form. Wenger suggested those comments were borne out of the Chelsea manager's "fear to fail," to which Mourinho responded by unleashing both verbal barrels in the direction of north London.

"He is a specialist in failure, I'm not," Mourinho said. "So if supposedly he's right and I'm afraid of failure, it's because I don't fail many times. So...maybe he's right. Maybe I'm not used to failing. But the reality is that he's a specialist because, eight years without a piece of silverware, that's failure. If I do that in Chelsea, eight years...I leave London, I don't come back."

With an unhappy coincidence, Wenger notched up a remarkable personal landmark when he took his side to Stamford Bridge a few weeks after Mourinho’s withering putdown. It was his 1,000th game in charge of Arsenal, in a fixture regarded as one that would give an indication of the two sides’ relative credentials for lifting the Premier League trophy.

For Wenger, it was a brutally chastening experience. When Chelsea won 6-0, the home crowd were not remotely shy about crowing in victory. As early as the third goal, a chant rang out from the Matthew Harding stand, which was quickly picked up around the stadium. "Specialist in failure," sang the Chelsea fans to Wenger.

The depressing truth for Wenger was that such critique was not restricted to his rivals. At the new expansive Emirates Stadium, the mood among the Arsenal fans had long soured. Charged the highest ticket prices in the Premier League, the regulars were getting sick of seeing their best players routinely picked off by rivals every summer, were tired of a lack of competitive signings and were dismayed that the compelling football of the 2004 title-winning Invincibles was but a memory.

There was one man who came to encapsulate all of their concerns: Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman had come to be considered even by his own supporters as old news. His methods were outdated, his "let the lads sort it out" training approach these days was inadequate, his stubborn refusal to address glaring issues within the squad was simply bewildering.

Even after he managed to land a bit of silverware by winning the FA Cup in May 2014, such concerns were not allayed. The win over Hull City in the final had been flaky and fortunate, speaking of a central weakness in the team that Wenger had not tackled.

Wenger with the FA Cup in 2014.
Wenger with the FA Cup in 2014.LEON NEAL/Getty Images

Fearing that yet another season would pass with limited ambition tattooed on the heart of the enterprise, the fans were getting increasingly vocal. At the end of November 2014, after a game against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns, a group of Arsenal supporters held a banner that was unequivocal about the direction the club should be taking.

"Arsene, thanks for the memories, but it’s time to say goodbye," it read. A month later, after a game against Stoke, Wenger was verbally abused on the train home by his own supporters, telling him to quit.

“Even as recently as when we lost at home to Manchester United [in February 2015] I’d have said, maybe this is it, maybe it’s over, maybe it’s time to move on,” said Ian Stone, the comedian and broadcaster who is a long-term Arsenal season-ticket holder. “I honestly thought it might be best to get in someone younger, fresher, sharper. You know, go for [Jurgen] Klopp or [Pep] Guardiola.”

Among the diehards, this was a widely subscribed view: Time was being called. And according to Philippe Auclair, the French musician, writer and Wenger confidant, the manager himself was beginning to think the end was inevitable. He points to the lengthy delay Wenger manufactured over signing his new contract at the club in 2014 as evidence of the Frenchman's lack of belief in the future—his own as much as that of the team.

“The board had no desire to get rid of him; the offer was there, on the table," Auclair told Bleacher Report. “He had never waited so long to sign a contract. He was clearly not enjoying himself. People think of him as stubborn, but underneath, he is so thin-skinned. That 6-0 defeat on his 1,000th game, he took it very badly. They hadn’t been playing good football for a long time; that’s what really hurt him."

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Wenger ignores critics after #AFC win: http://t.co/MtKmIX2Egb #SkyFootball http://t.co/MvCr5zXr1J

That desire to produce not just a winning side, but one that won with style, with panache, with an expression of aesthetic understanding, has always driven Wenger.

"He hates to lose, Arsene, really loathes it,” Wilson said. “But what he most wants is for the fan to feel, after paying to watch a game, that it was worth the money.

"Win, lose or draw, his mission is to give people a sense that they have been transported, taken to another place. He sees football very much as an art form, like the theatre or the opera. He wants people to be moved by what they see.

"His priority is always to try to outplay the opposition and play in an attractive way. It’s not always the winning that counts. That’s probably where he differs from the fans. They want to see victories.”

The problem was those victories became less frequent as the marginal gains Wenger could exploit in his early days were gradually eroded. At Manchester United, Ferguson might have initially sneered about Wenger’s inexperience, but he quickly recognised that here was a proper rival, and he rapidly copied the Frenchman's dietary and training methodologies.

A swell of foreign managers—most notably Mourinho—brought new ideas and new players to match Wenger’s best. No longer was the civilised school of management so unusual. Wenger was not just being caught up, he was being overtaken.

Auclair, meanwhile, points to other issues beyond faulty recruitment during the barren years.

Mourinho and Wenger at the Community Shield.
Mourinho and Wenger at the Community Shield.GLYN KIRK/Getty Images

"The problem was he didn’t develop as a manager," he said. “Tactically, in his preparation, he was doing things much the same as he ever did. Players tell me his training sessions—very intense, short exercises—have not changed in years. They were revolutionary when he brought them to England; now, they are very old hat."

Auclair also reckons Wenger became quickly outpaced by rival managers, by the educated new breed of Martinez, Rodgers and Monk—men who had borrowed, adapted and modernised the Wenger way.

"He is very poor tactically, particularly terrible at subbing," Auclair said. "He very rarely initiates switches. His problem is he sees movement rather than shape. Mourinho is all about shape. Before a game, Mourinho will have mapped out every single scenario and worked out a response. Can you imagine Wenger doing that? Never. Let the players work it out."

Endlessly loyal to his staff through the unproductive, silverware-free times, Wenger did not refresh his backroom team. There was a lack of rejuvenation. Pat Rice was at his side for years, the very embodiment of old school, while other managers recruited young and upcoming, properly qualified talent.

"He really doesn’t like confrontation," Wilson said. "And he has a loyalty that sometimes is detrimental; it means he backs off from the tough decisions.”

Smith agrees, telling Bleacher Report, “He doesn’t like criticism. You can see that in the way he reacts to defeat. He’s a bad loser, ungracious at times.”

That is why, according to some, Vieira is at Manchester City and Dennis Bergkamp or Henry have never been invited on to the Arsenal coaching staff. They are strong characters and people who, having enjoyed his training methods, might point out they were no longer sufficient.

As for the modern urge to embrace statistics, Wenger was left way behind.

"He gives very few instructions and does very little homework," Auclair said. "He only introduced video analysis last season, long after the rivals. I remember two days before the [2006] Champions League final asking him how he was going to counter Barca. He said, ‘Yeah, we’ll look at it tomorrow.’ Twenty-four hours before the biggest game against the most accomplished rivals and he didn’t start homework until the day before? Come on."

But more than all of that, there was another reason Arsenal slipped behind: the money. His rivals had enough of the stuff to buy whatever resources were required. According to Wilson, Wenger, parsimonious by nature, treated his club’s money as his own and was thus reluctant to join the arms-race inflation propelled by the new broadcast deals.

As advantages were eroded, Wenger clung to the fact that every season he still ensured Arsenal qualified for the Champions League. The fourth-place cup became the byword for his tenure.

He knew, however, he had to catch up. In the attempt to keep pace with heavily endowed rival clubs, Arsenal built themselves a new stadium. It was to be a cash cow, generating more income than any other in the country. Who needed oligarchs or Arab princes when you could pay your own way?

The thing was, financing the stadium became the absolute priority. For five long years, in the urgent requirement not to increase their debt, Arsenal reined in their costs to pay down the building’s enormous charges.

Wenger outside the Emirates during construction in 2004.
Wenger outside the Emirates during construction in 2004.Getty

Wenger was convinced he had the internal resources to cope with the more rigorous transfer budget imposed upon him. He believed in the club, believed in the stadium and was anxious to play his part in its delivery. He spent hours poring over the plans, working with the architects on the fine details of player accommodation and talking them through exactly what was required of the playing area.

The Frenchman loved Arsenal truly, madly, deeply—there could be no doubt of that.

He assumed his players would share his affection for the club. But what he did not take into account was the predatory actions of his rivals. Over the coming years, his best players were plucked off one by one by clubs offering them greater rewards, financial and trophy-wise. Ashley Cole, Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie: Watching the best head elsewhere became a ritual at the club.

"For five years, every summer we watched our best leave," Stone said. “It was an exquisite form of torture, being so close to the top but never within touching distance. It was a gilded cage, but it was a cage nonetheless."

Whereas in the past Wenger had always been able to replace his stalwarts with better players, he not only no longer had the cash, but others had outflanked him on the contacts. Liverpool signed Fernando Torres from Atletico Madrid, Chelsea bought Michael Essien from Lyon, Manchester United snapped up Patrice Evra from Monaco and Nemanja Vidic from Spartak Moscow.

These were the kind of players Wenger once had first refusal on. Now others, better financed than him, with ever-improving links to the market, were overtaking him. Wenger’s team became ever more diminished.

Wenger with Henry in 1999.
Wenger with Henry in 1999.SINEAD LYNCH/Getty Images

"His greatest achievement, the Invincibles, what men, what competitors," Auclair said. "Lauren, Campbell, Vieira, Silva—not one guy who was not a warrior. From there, they seemed to shrink, physically and morally."

For the fans, it became increasingly clear that Wenger’s chief characteristic was his stubbornness. He refused to accept that the players he had at his disposal were simply not trophy-winning material, never mind the proper heirs to those who had gone before.

In post-match press conferences, he invariably talked up the character of his team, when those who had just paid to watch could see no such quality.

“He was defending his players, which is the right thing to do," Smith said. "But when he said week after week, ‘We showed great mental strength,’ you could see in his eyes he knew they weren’t good enough."

The pressures piling up against the great survivor accumulated to the point that, in May 2014, Wenger had reached the very edge of giving up.

"He would have walked had they lost to Hull in the cup final, I’m convinced of it," said Perry Groves, the former Arsenal midfielder turned pundit. “He was one loss away from quitting."

By the spring of 2015, things appeared to have changed completely at Arsenal. After his team retained the FA Cup final in May, in the process making him the most decorated manager in the competition’s history, anyone catching sight of Wenger would have done a double take. A man who had been rapidly—and very publicly—stumbling into old age over the previous couple of years suddenly looked rejuvenated and revived, as if he had happened across the elixir of perpetual youth.

"I have never seen a more relieved man in my life," Smith said. “The cares of the world had been lifted from his shoulders.”

As Wenger revelled in the excellence of his team’s performance, after his fresh, exciting, young side had eviscerated Aston Villa 4-0 in an unanswerable swirl of attacking football to lift the trophy, the Arsenal manager had the appearance of a man who had reversed time. He looked like someone who felt he was right back where he belonged. He looked like someone who believed again.

So what precisely has changed? What has put the bounce back into the walk of the Arsenal fan and a smile back on to the face of their manager?

The easy answer is the money changed. Money talks in the Premier League: The depressing fact for those without it is that the title goes to those with the most. But as the Emirates Stadium debt was paid down, everything eased.

2014-15 FA Cup winners.
2014-15 FA Cup winners.Clive Rose/Getty Images

The club debt at the time of writing is £243 million. But take into account the cash reserves and it’s something like £36 million, which is barely significant for a business of their scale. That means the club is no longer prone to being ritually stripped every summer.

These last two years, Wenger has brought people in—Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Danny Welbeck and others at a cost of nearly £120 million—and nobody of significance has left. There is a sense of building instead of fire-fighting.

“We have reduced the gap and I believe we are ready to go further,” Wenger said this summer, per the Telegraph. “We have the stability that gives us strength. Before I was more exposed to ‘Who will go?’ and now the question I get more is ‘who will come?’ Our potential on the market has changed.”

The purchase of goalkeeper Petr Cech this summer was particularly significant. For five years, Wenger was outflanked by rivals. But here he was plucking a key component from one. Better still, it was from under the nose of Mourinho.

"Cech is a pragmatic signing," Auclair said. "Not the romantic Arsene of the past who was looking to put his faith in youth. A four-year contract for a 33-year-old—that is a signal he wants to win something proper. And win it soon."

Wenger’s increasing pragmatism was evident on the pitch in the second half of the 2014-15 season.

Arsenal's Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech looks on during the English Premier League football match between Newcastle United and Arsenal at St James' Park in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, north east England, on August 29, 2015. AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF

OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

"There was a sea change in his approach after getting walloped, humiliated in big games, like that one at Chelsea," Smith said. “His teams had been so badly set up against big rivals. It came as a big relief to quite a few in the club when he got others involved to work on shape, work on video analysis, the sort of thing most modern coaches do but that he famously never did. “

Smith points out that while Mourinho works out every eventuality and has plans for them all, Wenger prefers to let things flow; his guiding philosophy is to worry about Arsenal and never the opposition.

"Which is fine when you have the right players, not so much when you don’t,'' Smith said. "And he didn’t listen to other views as much as he might. Recently, there has been a much more obvious delegation. Steve Bould has taken control of the defence. Neil Banfield, who is an excellent coach, has become much more central. More importantly, the sports science department seems to be being listened to more, which has reduced the terrible injury record."

So does this suggest Wenger has changed?

"I’m not sure he has," Smith said. "But then he doesn’t have to change, as long as he gives others the chance to influence things, which he seems to be doing."

And in the latter stages of the 2014-15 season, it all came together. After the trauma of that 6-0 thrashing at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal got organised. This allowed them not only to compete—and beat top sides—but to do so in a style that had not been witnessed for some time.

“I’ve always compared Wenger’s way to the leader of a jazz band,” the musician Auclair said. "He is looking for constant improvisation on the pitch. He has a sound in his mind, and when they don’t play well, it is cacophonous. When they do, as against Villa in the cup final, it is perfect harmony.

"And he’s a perfectionist. It is finding the sound that motivates him, not trophies. He was very unhappy after the 2005 FA Cup. He thought Arsenal had played very badly; he said he never wanted them to be that bad again. I said to him, 'But you won the cup.' He said, 'It doesn’t matter. That’s not good enough.'"

Now there is a hint that good enough is returning.

“This summer, I find myself saying, 'Bring on next season, we might actually win the league,'” Stone said. “Now that is partly the fickle nature of football support. But there’s no doubt, there’s something special there. The way we swatted Villa aside, it was the mark of a class team. Maybe he was right all along. He was thinking massively long term. Most don’t. Most never get the chance.

"And I tell you what, I will personally say sorry to him if we win the league. I will seek him out and admit to him I hadn’t a clue. But then, I’m full of optimism. Ask me how I feel when we’ve drawn at home to Leicester."

And Wilson believes this coming season will finally, after almost a decade of decline, allow Wenger the opportunity to go out of the game as he should—after building a side that expresses his philosophy.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 16:  Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Arsenal at Selhurst Park on August 16, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Michael Regan/Getty Images

"I think Arsene will only be truly appreciated when he is gone," Wilson said. "I’m amazed he takes the stick he does, given what he has achieved. When you get to know him, he is an incredibly humane man. But when you think about what he achieved, especially with the Invincibles, it was just amazing.

"We’re lucky to have been around to enjoy what he gave us. You’d think it should be feasible for anyone these days, if they’ve got the backing. Buy the best players and you get the results, surely. But it doesn’t work like that. You need to be Arsene to make it work."

But if Wilson thinks Wenger sees an exit strategy in this burgeoning young team, the man himself is not so sure.

Asked this summer if he thought he might retire after this, his 20th season in charge—he is, after all, approaching 66 years of age—Wenger said this, per Matt Barlow of the Daily Mail: "It crosses my mind sometimes, but for no longer than five seconds because I panic a little bit. ... I am more committed than ever. It is how much you love what you do that counts. And the love is not necessarily diminished by the number of times you have done it."

He then revealed that he had recently bumped into Ferguson and they had spoken about his great rival’s retirement. "I said, 'Come on, don't you miss it?'" Wenger recalled. “He says no. He’d had enough. But he has horses. I have no horses."

True enough. Nor does he have Ferguson’s interest in American Civil War politics or wine or management theory or musical theatre. In fact, all he has is shelf after shelf of videos of football matches lining the walls of his home. Football is the beginning and end of Wenger’s world view. That’s why he cannot easily embrace the idea of giving up.

As Smith puts it so succinctly, “He is an addict.”

Jim White is a columnist for the Telegraph and the author of books including Premier League: A History in 10 Matches, You'll Never Win Anything With Kids and Manchester United: The Biography. All quotes for this piece were gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated.


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