‘…it’s not just unprepossessing London Colney that is a paradox. Arsène Wenger is too.’
So ended Layth Yousif’s (of the Islington Gazette, Arsenal’s local paper) article before the North London Derby. It is undoubtedly true.
The man known as The Professor with a masters degree in economics, a rare level of academic achievement in the football world, who used to read the Bible as a child in the hopes of helping his team win.
A pioneer of football statistics in the Premier League, of cold hard data rigorously examined and applied, who says that his sense of optimism is ‘nourished by a naïve belief in human beings. My job basically is to say to people, “You do it for me, I believe in you”’.
Arsène Wenger is a mass of contradictions.
As are we all, probably, but we’re not at the centre of one of the biggest football clubs in the world, our multiple decade-spanning tenure currently looking like it’s hanging by a thread.
Although an article in the Independent in 2010 says that Wenger ‘does not, in the normal run of play, give interviews’, there has been something of a rush of them in the past few years. His brother has even given his first interview with a British journalist in Arsène’s career at Arsenal.
A cynic could say that this has been a political play by Wenger, an attempt to endear him to fans who have been murmuring discontent in the immediate aftermath of their recent FA Cup wins. ‘I can win trophies, and now here is my soul so that you can get to know me and learn to love me again’, perhaps. Every quote which may appear to offer a glimpse into his most inner workings becomes a puzzle of what is truth and what is excuse.
‘For me, the continuity at the highest level is the mark of the great clubs’, for example, ‘for me, the continuity in results depends on the cohesion within the club’.
However, there are definite threads which run through several interviews. A genuine difficulty in retiring comes through time and time again. In 2009, he said that he had originally intended to walk away from football management at 50 but now did not ‘believe in retiring’. ‘He does not want to stop’, says his brother.
In his interview with L’Équipe Sport and Style, he says that ‘there were times, when I was 24-25 years old, I said to myself: “Shit, if I can’t play football anymore, I’ll kill myself!” I said to myself “what is the point of life afterwards?”’. When he moved into coaching, he says that he ‘knew that I could play football forever’.
And unlike his fellow (former) Premier League stalwart, Sir Alex Ferguson, he doesn’t have passions outside of football. ‘He liked horses, wine… I’m not Ferguson. I haven’t a substitute and I am no longer interested in the idea of looking ahead’. That doesn’t mean he sees himself as being at Arsenal until he dies, but ‘I hope, in my life afterwards, that I could be something other than “ex-manager of Arsenal”. Train youngsters. Be useful’.
His belief in beautiful football is an unsurprising theme, although it may be as self-serving as it is inspiring. Asked by Men in Blazers in 2016 [transcript by arseblog] if he had to choose between playing beautifully or winning ugly, he does not even entertain the question. ‘You don’t think like that’.
The way that he continues the answer points, presumably, to the very heart of how he sees football, and recalls the way in which he believes coaching continued his life as a football player. ‘People want to come and see an experience that fulfils them for the game they love. Everybody who sits in the stand was a football player’. In the interview with Sport and Style, on being an idealist, he quotes: ‘There’s only one way to live with the idea of death, that’s to try and transform the present into art’.
It is unsurprising that Wenger’s Arsenal has become known recently for having a bit of a laissez-faire approach to organising their attack, especially given that he has said ‘in our job you need to be an animal, in that you need a certain physical power to convince a group of players that they can win’. To Sport and Style he said that ‘to win, it’s necessary to convince’ (this works as wordplay in French, ‘pour vaincre, il faut convaincre’).
One can imagine that, with his self-admitted naïve belief in humans – one could even call it his faith, with all of the connotations that word brings with it – combined with the stated need to convince players that they can win, there is an aspect of Wenger magic which may inexplicably wear off.
The Professor is not especially known for detailed tactical systems, and his interviews seem to feature more philosophy than gameplans. He refers to himself as a ‘facilitator of what is beautiful in man’, rather than as a creator of his teams.
It’s worth remembering where Arsène Wenger came from. It’s been noted that if he hadn’t gone into football, Wenger could have been successful in business – and if the two professions have a similar rate of incredibly wealthy people today, they certainly did not in the 1960s and 70s when Wenger was choosing which to devote his life to.
In the 2010 interview with the Independent, when asked about his other interests, he tells a story.
‘”You know the story about the guy who’s a promising pianist? One day he goes to a concert and he hears a fantastic pianist. So he goes to see him after the concert, and says to him, ‘I would give my life to play like you’” – Wenger pauses for effect and emphasis – “And the pianist replies, ‘That’s what I have done’”’.
It’s no wonder that Wenger doesn’t want to quit.