I love Tony Adams for what he did on the pitch for Arsenal. When I go to London* for a match I always put a coin in Tony Adams’ palm. For luck. Also because it’s my favorite statue in the Arsenal reliquary. I hear it actually has one of Tony Adams’ bones, a metatarsal, embedded in the statue to imbue it with power.
The more I think about it, a coin is a silly thing to put in Tony Adams’ hand. I think a Mars bar would be a better offering. Mars Bars were the sweet that Arsene Wenger banned and there is a scene in Tony’s book, Addicted, where some beer touched his lips after he got sober and he went off to compose himself with a cup of tea and a Mars Bar.
The coin, then, should go in Arsene Wenger’s hand when they finally get around to erecting his statue for us plebs. He already has a bust but it’s only accessible via the Double Secret Director’s Diamond Doors. How long after he retires will it take them to put up his statue? Or is the stadium kind of a statue to the man? I mean, he did build the stadium; staying up late at nights, welding and bending steel beams with jet fuel.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I love both Adams and Wenger for what they have done for me as a fan of football and Arsenal football club. Sorry, is that selfish? I mean what they have done for the club. By winning things. That winning of things which I enjoy and celebrate on this day after Arsene Wenger won me my 7th FA Cup. Dennis Bergkamp once said “Are you a fan of football or just a fan of Arsenal?” and less famously “Are you a fan of winning or Tiger Blood?” which I think is perfect here** because I’m a fan of all those things: Arsenal with trophies, Arsenal without trophies, winning, football, and even Tiger Blood.
And now Big Tone and Slim Arsene are fighting. Tony keeps telling everyone who will listen that he (Tony) can’t coach and Arsene just keeps saying “Tony who?”
In case you haven’t heard Tony told the Sun that Wenger couldn’t coach his way out of a paper sack. I don’t read the Sun so I waited until the Guardian did an interview with Adams and boy was I rewarded. I have always wanted to hear what a man who has lost every coaching job he’s ever worked thought about the coaching skills of the greatest manager that has ever managed Arsenal. (Hint: he thinks Wenger is a bad coach). It’s like Gary Neville offering coaching advice, except a step down, because Gary Neville actually won a few games coaching in Spain, where Tony Adams has lost every single match.
I jest but it’s a really weird interview. Weirder even than I can capture here in this weird blog post. At one point he says Arsene isn’t a coach, then that Arsene is the greatest coach, that Arsene doesn’t have the energy to coach, and that Arsene coached Lilian Thuram into a world class player. This quote right here sums up his entire criticism:
(Wenger’s) a great coach, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not the best I’ve worked with. Don Howe taught me. Terry Burton taught me. Terry Venables taught me. George Graham taught me. They taught me how to defend, how to work lines, how to push up. Arsène’s a better physiologist than all of them. Better economist than all of them. I would say better psychologist than all of them. He is one of the greatest managers of all time.
It’s actually a fair enough criticism. Arsenal fans have long known that Wenger is probably not the greatest tactician nor the greatest coach. Many former players have let the cat out of that bag long ago. In her book “Invincibles” Amy Lawrence quotes Vieira saying that they had to figure things out for themselves. That’s what made them so successful: they would sort out tactics over dinner after Wenger’s coaching sessions.
And in that same book, Lee Dixon says straight up that Wenger doesn’t and can’t coach football:
George [Graham] drilled us into very knowledgable individuals, and a defence that could almost play with its eyes shut. I don’t know whether Arsene could do that. Well, he couldn’t!
That’s not his style, he is not knowledgeable about the defensive side of the game. He doesn’t push people around on the training pitch; he creates environments. A perfect example of that is Ashley Cole: Ash couldn’t defend to save his life when he got into the Arsenal team – and he’d agree with me.
But he had arguably one of the best coaches around for him in Tony Adams standing next to him. Tony had him on a piece of string. Arsene didn’t coach him once. Arsene doesn’t particularly know whether the left-back is in the right position or not! But he knows that Tony knows. So he put Ash next to Tony and said, have a look at him. That blend of experience is the perfect platform for Arsene to do his stuff.
Because that’s what he is brilliant at – creating environments to prepare players to be the best they possibly can.
Raphael Honigstein has been quoted several times on The Game podcast saying that Wenger doesn’t really coach his players and that the German players are surprised by the lack of instructions they would receive before matches. In this article Honigstein says that Wenger walked into the dressing room before a match against Fulham, drew a wolf on the board, and instructed his players to play like wolves. Everyone was surprised that there were no tactical instructions. Just go play like wolves. Personally, I would have at least played Hungry Like the Wolf so that they would all be singing that as they played like wolves.
So, what does Wenger do and why is Tony Adams’ interview so painful to Wenger that he would cut off their text love affair (as Tony put it) and push back Adams’ book signing event at the Emirates?
In various interviews Wenger describes himself as an “educator first and foremost”. He sees it as his job as a coach to instill certain values in players which those players will then use to reach the Platonic Ideal of themselves. He wants all of his players to be their best. It’s a Teleological approach to coaching.
I don’t want the will to educate to be opposed to the will to win. That makes the educator sound like an idiot. Any manager’s approach must be to educate. One of the beauties of our job is the power to influence the course of a man’s life in a positive way. You and me have been lucky enough to meet people who believed in us and led us forward. The streets are full of talented people but who didn’t have the luck of finding someone who placed their faith in them. I can be the one that facilitates life, that give an opportunity.
So, Tony Adams’ criticism stings Wenger deeply. Wenger sees himself as a coach, as a great coach, whose job is to not just take players and tell them where to stand on the pitch but teach them how to be great humans. It’s a strength and a weakness. All managers have strengths and weaknesses.
But Adams isn’t saying anything that people didn’t already know. He isn’t saying anything that Lee Dixon, Patrick Vieira, and others haven’t already said. So, where do I stand on this issue? How am I supposed to feel about Tony Adams saying that Wenger can’t coach?
Wenger coaches, in his own way. If it works, then it’s great. If it doesn’t work, then he needs to be replaced. Either way, I still love both Tony Adams and Arsene Wenger and I hope they make up and have dinner together or something.
*Am I ever going to get to go back to London?
**I made this up