Arsene Wenger sat down with renown journalist Philippe Auclair (author of Thierry Henry’s splendid biography Lonely at the Top) and gave one of his famous philosophical interviews. Wenger is well known in the football community as an introspective thinker, a man who judges himself more harshly than most of his critics in the stands, but also as a man who can also turn his jaundiced eye on the football world in general. That is what we have here.
In this excerpt, published in France Football and translated by Get French Football News we see an Arsene Wenger less hopeful than ever before about the future of football. His vision of football manager as technocrat would make Eduardo Galeano happy that he died before he could see the magical realism of football turned into a simple algorithm. And yet, that’s not the most upsetting aspect of the interview.
Speaking about whether he can compete with the big clubs Wenger comes across as a manager who seems trapped between not being able to afford the best players and not being able to build a team around youth. He seems handcuffed by greedy agents, by clubs seeing the sale price of Neymar and then jacking up the price for “normal” players to £50m. What this latter says, albeit accidentally, about Arsenal’s recent purchase of Alexandre Lacazette is unknown.
His vision of football’s future is a frightening dystopia. He sees a future where clubs run by countries pay outrageous sums for ego-purchases and then have their team of analysts tell the so-called manager which players to field. In this future, youth players can never be bought by clubs like Arsenal because the fans irrationally demand that their team buy big names, to assuage their own egos. And so, his vision of the future is one which a club like Arsenal can almost never win the major trophies, can never challenge for the Champions League, and which is constantly being bled dry by blood-sucking agents and held ransom to their best players.
Is it the future or is it now? Are we living in Wenger’s dystopia?
My complaint about Wenger’s interview is that he sets out his arguments into too-perfect dualisms. Everything seems to be one way or the other. For example, when it comes to him building another youth team like he did from 2006-2011, he says he simply cannot because the fans won’t accept it. But I’m not alone in saying that that’s not true. Tottenham’s supporters are over the moon about their success and even Arsenal supporters are typically highly forgiving of young players – look no further than the recent lionization of Rob Holding and Calum Chambers, or even the way supporters forgive Oxlade-Chamberlain because he is young and has spent a lot of his career injured. Manchester United supporters are angry that Mourinho isn’t giving a chance to youth – and that team has spent PSG-like money on players over the last three years.
Wenger’s dystopia is actually an argument to quit watching football altogether. If only PSG and Real Madrid can win the Champions League, there’s no point watching it. If only Man City and Man United can win the Premier League, then what’s the point for the other 18 teams? To finish 4th?
Ultimately, what’s most depressing about this interview is that it reinforces all of my own negative feelings toward football and what football has become since I started watching – something which has only picked up pace since I started writing this blog in January 2008. It’s depressing because I have a hard time arguing against most of what he says: money has changed the game, players and their agents are irrationally greedy, youth teams are difficult to put together, and analytics may very well take over the sport.
Maybe Wenger is just echoing what many fans already feel.
Arsène Wenger: “There are moments where a manager feels very alone.”
Speaking in an extensive, exclusive interview with France Football, Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger discussed the new season, as well as what really happened with his contract situation this summer and much more.
Arsène, what is the hardest thing in your role as manager?
Every defeat is a nightmare. One of the handicaps, when you stay at the same club for a long time, is that you feel an enormous amount of guilt as a coach when you lose a big game. And the longer you stay at the club, the more difficult it becomes because you know to what extent people are affected, they have a horrible weekend, they’ll be crying maybe.
When you sign a 2-year contract (initially), you don’t care as much, because you do not understand how a club can mean so much to its fans. But as time goes by, the more difficult it becomes. Each time, you feel so guilty.
How did you cope with the protests against you that occurred last season?
There have been a lot of divisions amongst Arsenal supporters. They have sometimes been expressed in a ridiculous way, like when a plane flew over the Emirates with a message that was hostile towards me.
What consequences did it have on Arsenal’s season.
Maybe my attitude had an impact on our season, because, at one point, the players came to me and asked me, “what is going on, boss”? With my indecisiveness, I created a lack of clarity in the dressing room. And there is nothing worse than when players feel like you are not totally committed. So, at one moment, I said to them: “I am with you guys, but we have to win matches.”
Did you genuinely not know if you were going to stay or leave?
You had not taken a decision?
No. As I said to you, the fact that I had not taken this decision to stay or to leave created uncertainty. And when we are not winning, you know, other problems take priority.
Where did this indecisiveness come from? Did it relate to what was happening at board level or the fans who were demanding your departure?
You always ask yourself questions. Am I the right person to continue to do good work? When I am faced with uncertainty or sadness, I try to really focus on what really counts in football. I question myself. I work harder, I try to advance myself, to become better, but I cannot say that the critics do not affect me. Everybody wants to be liked, by the fans especially. You have to continue to fight, to concentrate on your motivation. To be able to resist stress is an important quality in modern football, and not only for managers.
You have to be able to resist stress to deal with everything that you have been through in recent seasons. Do you think that people sometimes forget a little too easily everything that you have achieved at Arsenal since your arrival in 1996?
People do not take a step back to look at what has happened. For me, the environment changed between 2006 and 2015, because we were under financial restrictions (construction of the Emirates), at a time when a lot of money was injected into English football. We had less money, we had to sell our best players whilst other teams were strengthening… sometimes with our own players.
But the expectations were exactly the same. To be completely honest, I have never worked more than during this period, between 2006 & 2015. I had signed a 5-year contract, because the banks required it whilst we were building a new stadium. We had absolutely no guarantees and I went to the end of my contract because I wanted to respect this challenge. But it was difficult. I am proud of what I have done.
In the end, you signed a new deal until 2019. In two years time, will you stay or go?
I do not know (laughs).
If you had to choose a successor, who would it be?
(Laughs) I will tell you a story. A manager goes to see a doctor and he ask: “How much longer will I live.” The doctor responds: “Quit your job as manager, immediately. Do not drink any more. Stop smoking.” The manager insists: “Will you guarantee that I will live longer if I do this?” “No not at all,” the doctor tells him. “But you will feel like you are living a lot longer.” Ever since I heard that story, I have decided not to change job!
You are not answering the question. A name to replace you with…
That is not my job. To help someone get his bearings right and feel at home, yes, that is my job. But it is up to the board to choose the next manager of Arsenal. I would like whoever takes over from me to take the club to another level, and I genuinely hope that the club will succeed in doing that. I want only to assure myself that the person who takes my place will be put in the required conditions to work well. That means to have a settled team, a good financial situation, a squad that contains within it promising youngsters who can become excellent players. That is my desire.
How do you see the future of the day-to-day role of the manager developing?
The era when a manager decided everything is over. We will never again see that type of manager. I even think that we are heading towards a type of management that is totally different to what we have known. Today, I lead a team of around twenty people, and the role of the manager in the 21st century is to know how to work well with that team and to make that team work well with your team, I mean the players. Footballers have a very developed sense of smell. They feel, very quickly, friction in their surroundings. The challenge, today, is to build a team that is united with your technical staff.
When you are surrounded by a lot of people, that means that you hear lots of different opinions. In our sport, that can be a good thing. On certain things, the groundsman at the Emirates can be right, and I can be wrong. Maybe on 50 questions, I will be more right than him, but on certain ones, his opinion will be more valid than mine.
Do you think that the role of manager can evolve to such an extent that we could one day see a female manager in the Premier League?
There is an interesting experiment ongoing in France with Corinne Diacre (at Clermont), who has done incredible work in Ligue 2 for three years. Personally, I believe that this could happen in England soon. I was recently at a League Managers Association meeting, and I said to them that it would be interesting to do a study on the future of our job, because I am sure that in ten or fifteen years, it will not necessarily be a football specialist who will be the manager of a club.
He or her will be surrounded by scientists, who will tell him which team to play on Saturday. The boss will be a specialist in management, because the football decisions will be taken by technology and analysis. That is why it is not at all absurd to think that a woman can become the manager of a club.
This summer, the only question has been how fabulous a sum will you spend on a transfer. Neymar for €222m, Manchester City who have spent €150m for two full-backs. Is that all viable?
Yes. But before answering that question I want to ask another. What is the size of a football club? 30 years ago, it was defined by a number, the number of people who went to a club’s stadium on a Saturday afternoon. Today, it is still the amount of people that are attracted to a matchday but also the financial power of a club’s owners. And that is a fundamental change.
The revenues brought about by TV rights have changed too, but these revenues are shared amongst the 20 Premier League clubs in a very fair manner, that does not require any discussion at all. The real transformation, since about a dozen years ago, in England and elsewhere, is that the majority of owners are today foreigners. Sometimes billionaires, sometimes governments, states that have enough financial power to make the decision to buy Neymar for more than €200m.
What is the logic behind this type of decision?
They are doing it because it is a good thing for their country; because the club is a flag-bearer for a World Cup in 2022 in Qatar. The notion of “I spend as much as I earn,” no longer works. In terms of money, reason no longer takes hold when you want to buy a wing-back, it is the ego that takes over. It is “what will this purchase mean for our country in terms of promotion and advertising?” That is why I say that the market is becoming more irrational.
It does not seem very healthy all that.
Not really. When you manage you should be aware of the fact that when we say that Neymar will earn €30m a year net post taxes. Any you, you have to explain to others who are earning 5 or 10. Knowing that they will not necessarily accept that. The danger, in my view, is that we are making fragile what I love about football, to know that it is a team sport.
Today, football has become a business of individuals, in the image of our society that puts everything on the notion of a star, individual success, and less on what makes a team a team. You can ask if, today, Nottingham Forest could win the European Cup, like in 1979 and 1980. The answer is no.
What stops modest clubs from winning the Champions League?
The concentration on financial strength, has brought the concentration of the world’s best players across a very small number of clubs. That is also a reflection on our society, in which where the most brilliant people are concentrated in a few of the biggest companies. That is why competitions have lost their unpredictability. We know today that only a dozen clubs can hope to win the Champions League. Maybe even less. 5 or 6. Before, exceptional players were spread more, not like today. Uncertainty has disappeared. Yes, Real Madrid were European champions repeatedly. But for 30 years they didn’t win the Champions League (1966 to 1998).
What about Leicester?
Leicester is a counter-example. Of course there was going to be one!
Is it really impossible to be competitive in the Premier League if you are not spending as much as the five or six big clubs. Tottenham did well by using young players last season…
Tottenham had an excellent season, it is a young team that is rising. But it is very difficult to reinforce this sort of team. We are asked to sign players. But who? In the current market, you will spend €50m for a player that I would consider “normal”. You have to sell, tickets and shirts, to sign a player worth €50m! It is becoming totally crazy. As you pay more than €200m for Neymar, you have to pay €50m or €100m for a player that is not as good as him. And it is not over.
You do not sound very optimistic…
You speak to an agent, he says to you: “Today, my player is earning €3m. But with all the money, TV rights and when we see what others are earning, now, we want €8m.” And us, we can’t raise someone’s salary by €5m like that. We quite simply do not have the financial capability to do that. That does not change their reasoning, because they are basing it on the assumption that inflation will continue. It is a very dangerous game. You can become trapped. If sources of revenue dry up, for example.
Would it not make sense to turn towards young players to overcome this phenomenon and to anticipate it? Especially when you see the success of the English youth teams this summer…
It is difficult, today. What people want, what the media wants, are big stars, big names. Most people do not care when you give a youngster a chance.
Do you not think that Chelsea fans want to see their youngsters, who are shining in the Youth Cup and the UEFA Youth League, wearing the Blues shirt for the first team?
No doubt, but when you bring in a big name for a lot of money, you are reassuring fans. A manager must assume his responsibilities. If I play a 20-year-old central defender, I know it will cost me during the season. I have to accept it, and take that responsibility. If I play a 28-year-old central defender – maybe less talented – it will cost me less. At the end of the day, the easier decision is to not play the young players.
That is a difficult decision to take.
There are moments when a manager feels very alone. When you take responsibility for your choices and you play a youngster because he deserves it. That is something that you learn on the job when you are a manager: a few exceptional cases aside, it is only at the age of 23, 24 that you really have a player. Before that, a young footballer has highs and lows. And that, is seemingly something that nobody can accept.