“When I was a very young boy I always wanted to go out of my village. I lived in a very small village and I quickly noticed that when I went out there to Germany for example people spoke a language that I didn’t understand. And I tried to think, ok I’ll learn German. That’s why I worked very hard in school on my German and I became quite good. After, when I was a bit older I was very passionate about football and I thought I don’t imagine that I will spend my life in my village. And how could I get out there and know more about football? Of course, England invented football and I thought ‘I have to learn English.’ So I decided to learn English but I never imagined that one day I would coach in England, of course. But that shows you that when you catch opportunities when you’re a very young boy it can after decide your life. When learned English I never imagined that one day I would manage Arsenal football club but just to try to learn it, changed of course completely my life.”
When he was 29, Arsene Wenger felt like he didn’t speak English well enough. So while all his friends were relaxing in the sun of Cyprus and Turkey, he took a summer in England to study.
He traveled to Cambridge and knocked on people’s doors to ask for bed and breakfast. What a sight that must have been, this tall, bespectacled Frenchman, with wild curly hair, knocking on doors, asking for a room in broken English. But as luck would have it, at one house the lady said that they did have a room and he was welcome to stay.
Arsene told her why he was in England and asked where he could go to practice his English. She told him about a school he could go to and the very next day he rented a bike and went to that school.
She was the teacher.
He spent that whole summer studying English with kids half his age and he calls it the best summer of his life.
This story captures every aspect of Arsene Wenger’s philosophy. That a person must have talent, must apply themselves to that talent, but also must be given an opportunity. He clearly has the talent for language. He also clearly applied himself, spending his summer vacation trying to learn English. But it also took that opportunity of the woman opening her door to him, of taking him into her classroom, of spending her time and patience on a man who was twice the age of her students, and teaching him English. That opportunity made Arsene Wenger the man he is today.
We forget that Wenger was a trailblazer in England. Foreign managers before Wenger were rare and those who did come to England failed miserably. Without his command of English he wouldn’t have been able to communicate with then Arsenal Director David Dein and I doubt he would have been able to convince the board to take a chance on him. That one summer, that one woman opening her door to him, changed his life. That one summer changed the direction of Arsenal football club forever.
Wenger believes in repaying that opportunity, here is a quote from a wide ranging interview with Jeremy Wilson from 2011.
“First you need the talent, but also you need to meet someone who believes in you and gives you a chance. You can imagine though, that plenty of people have talent in life but they do not meet someone who gives them a chance. Can you name one Formula One driver from an African country, apart from South Africa? And can you really imagine that there is not one guy in Africa with the talent to be a Formula One driver? Why are they not there? Because no one has given them a chance. So in life it’s important to meet someone who will give you a chance, and when I can do this in football, I do it.”
Wenger’s insistence on giving opportunity to players can drive football fans crazy but it can also produce some amazing results. Patrick Vieira was Wenger’s first signing, asking David Dein to buy the Frenchman from AC Milan and convincing Vieira to sign for Arsenal instead of Ajax. Wenger recalled the story in 2006,
The first time I was struck by Patrick Vieira’s ability was during a French League Cup game. My team Monaco were playing against Cannes and I had Claude Puel in the middle, a really strong guy who won all his one-on-one match-ups. Patrick came on at half-time and suddenly Puel looked like a kid compared with him. I immediately told myself that this Vieira guy would one day be a great player.
Afterwards I would go and see him at Cannes but it wasn’t until January 1996 that I met him. George Weah had been named Fifa’s World Player of the Year and he invited me to Milan. I met Patrick during half-time of one of their games. He wasn’t playing and seemed completely demoralised, as if he had lost his way. Given how much he loves to play, it must have been torture for him to be at Milan on the bench or, even worse, in the stands. I tried to cheer him up, saying: “Hang on in there, my friend. You’ll get there in the end, and this is AC Milan, after all.” It was terrible to see this young man, who I knew could conquer and dominate the midfield, totally disheartened. At the time, though, there was a lot of talent in AC’s midfield.
The following July I was contacted by Arsenal. Patrick was in negotiations with Ajax and I called him from Japan to tell him to go and sign for Arsenal, and that’s how the transfer was done.
And it was Wenger who gave a chance to young Cesc Fabregas, buying him from the Barcelona academy and then building a team around the Catalan boy and giving him the keys to the Arsenal castle. Because of the opportunity Wenger gave them Fabregas and Vieira went on to win the World Cup, starring for both their clubs and for their country. Both Vieira and Fabregas’ lives would have turned out differently if they had stayed at their respective clubs instead of joining Arsenal.
Giving opportunities to players doesn’t always work out for the best. Some players like Nicklas Bendtner and David Bentley are given chances and they pour booze on them and burn them to the ground. Some players are also given chance after chance, like Theo Walcott, and fans struggle to see why. But Wenger is going to keep giving opportunity to players because it is a cornerstone of his footballing philosophy.
Another key in the Wenger code is consistency, and slowly accumulating more, growing over time rather than in spurts and jumps. Back in 2007, Jose Mourinho mocked Wenger and Arsenal because he hadn’t won a Champions League trophy. Wenger’s response was perfect:
“Am I big or small is not so important, it’s not my obsession. What is important is that you look at the careers of 10, 15 or 20 years. What kind of quality have you brought in your work and on what consistent level you have done it. That’s how it is for me but everyone has different criteria.”
If you look at Wenger’s career he has been remarkably consistent, finishing every year in the top four. It has been that remarkable consistence and the money that comes with it which funded Arsenal’s new 60,000 seat stadium. Wenger had to get that balance just right during those lean years, when his best player was Fabregas and when his star striker was permanently injured. He had to be consistent and finish in the top four without spending big money on players that the fans wanted. While he will be remembered for his three League titles and for the fact that his team once went an entire season unbeaten, the fact that he kept Arsenal in Champions League football for 10 years on a small transfer budget, while losing star players every season, was a feat that equals winning a trophy. No manager in world football would agree to such a task.
Later in that same interview, Wenger went on to say that what you have achieved in the past is irrelevant, “the biggest achievement is always the next one.” This is a man who went an entire season unbeaten. If he dwelt on the past he wouldn’t have any reason to go forward, to strive to be better. To rebuild over and over again. The next achievement is always Wenger’s goal.
Echoing his statements from 2007 (above), Wenger recently reiterated his three goals as manager of Arsenal Football Club.
“We have been through difficult and fantastic periods but we are always focused on being united as a club, that’s why I always acted with three things in my mind. First every decision I make like I own the club. Second in a job where you need a clear perception of ideas and the courage to transform it into action. And third to make this club grow and make sure it is bigger when I leave than when I arrived. Time will tell if I managed that.”
Wenger is also famous for his sharp wit. Often dueling with the press in a light hearted way. Wenger is famous for never revealing the players that he is after in the transfer market and yet the press still hound him with their questions, often asking directly if Arsenal have made a bid for some player by name. In 2014 when Wenger was looking for defensive reinforcements he replied, “we are like you, we listen to the names. Sometimes I look for who we (are going to) buy, in the media.” He also gave that sme reporter a bit of his sharp wit saying about Arsenal’s (lack of) transfer business “your job is always to imagine a disaster. My job is to believe in what we do and what the team does.”
Wenger can open up sometimes and when he does, the results are often poetic. Speaking on the eve of his 1,000th game in charge, Wenger said,
“Every defeat is a scar on the heart you never forget and every win is forgotten because you find it normal. There has been a lot of suffering in 1,000 games. What I want is the next moment of happiness.”
If every defeat is a scar on the heart, then losing that 1,000th match, losing to Jose Mourinho who is in every way his opposite, and losing 6-0, one of the heaviest defeats in his entire career, must have been like ripping his heart out and showing it to him still beating.
All he cares about is football. It’s an obsession. When asked about what he does with his free time in 2006, after 10 years at Arsenal, Wenger admitted that he doesn’t get out much and doesn’t do much beyond football.
“I have the impression of living on an island called Arsenal. If you fancy a sightseeing tour of London, don’t ask me. You would get lost!”
And describing his daily routine, which consists of getting up at the same time and driving the same route to work he waxed poetic with “They know me very well. The trees laugh when I drive through in the morning.”
Take a moment to watch that interview linked above. Wenger trains like an athlete. He shows the exact dedication to diet, drink, and smoke that he wants from his players saying,
“I prepare myself as well as I can and certainly better than many players. I never go out 48 hours before a game for dinner or anything. I just prepare for the game. You have to sacrifice your life for this job. Because if you want to do it like I have, until now, for thirty years, without stopping, EVER. You have to prepare to work seven days a week and the whole year.”
He prepares himself so rigorously because he wants to transform football from just a simple escape from reality into something transcendent. This is his one philosophy which draws the most backhanded criticism, that he is an aesthete, that he cares more about art than winning.
“I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art. When you read some books they are fantastic, the writer touches something in you that you know you would not have brought out of yourself. He makes you discover something interesting in your life. If you are living like an animal, what is the point of living? What makes daily life interesting is that we try to transform it to something that is close to art. And football is like that.”
This idea of turning what you do into art is one which he will often paraphrase as “the only way to deal with death is to turn each day that precedes it into art”. When Arsenal are playing at their best, they reach that sublime level of art. It doesn’t happen in every match and it feels like it happens less often now than when Wenger first took over but it still happens.
Wenger has dedicated 20 years of his life to Arsenal football club and has probably given 4,000 interviews. These quotes are by no means the end of Wenger’s body of work. I could write an entire book just using his own words. And in this piece I have intentionally left out the quotes that everyone has heard 100 times and instead focused more on this man and what he believes. I wanted this piece to be about his philosophy and how that philosophy was shaped.
And yet knowing what I know about Wenger it is still mind-boggling that Wenger would endure 20 years. That he would spend all of that time answering the same questions about buying players for 20 years. That he would come to work the same way. That he would take training sessions. That he would prepare himself seven days a week, 365 days a year, to be Arsenal’s manager. It is incredible until you hear his reason why.
In his typically poetic fashion Wenger explains,
“I always say that a manager has a love story with a club and he has to behave like it will be a love story forever but not be stupid enough to believe that it will never end. It could end at any minute, but you have to behave like it will last forever.”