What does this Frenchman know about football?
Amy Lawrence lists some of the ways in which ArsÃ¨ne Wenger has changed English football during his decade at Arsenal
The famous back four, all in their thirties when Wenger arrived, gave each other an old-fashioned look. Lee Dixon thought the new manager looked like a geography teacher.
Tony Adams wondered: “What does this Frenchman know about football? He’s not going to be as good as George [Graham].
Does he even speak English properly?” Ray Parlour did impressions of Inspector Clouseau.
Wenger looked like a professor and worked according to the stopwatch. Sessions were shorter, sharper and timed to the second—unlike the sweaty, physical tests of endurance more common in traditional English regimes.
Eat your greens
Ian Wright spends his time nowadays trying to help Britain’s obese children get fit. But when Wenger initially changed the menu at Arsenal, Wright turned up his nose and tutted about broccoli. The players’ taste buds changed remarkably quickly. Vitamin supplements were gobbled. Alcohol was not banned but was discouraged—a brave move considering its perceived importance in team bonding in English dressing rooms.
Wenger grew up above a pub in the Alsace and had seen enough to know alcohol was not an athlete’s best friend.
He learned a lot about diet during his two years in Japan as manager of Grampus 8. “It was the best diet I ever had,” he says. “The whole way of life there is linked to health. Their diet is basically boiled vegetables, fish and rice. No fat, no sugar. You notice when you live there that there are no fat people. I think in England you eat too much sugar and meat and not enough vegetables.”
Word of his methods spread throughout football. Even in the lower divisions the days of beans on toast and jam roly-poly in the canteen are long gone.
Knowledge is money
In the past few years Arsenal have spent less than not just Chelsea, obviously, and Manchester United on team building, but also less than a clutch of teams still to win the Premiership.
He has made his reputation on his knowledge of overseas talent, informed by a network of scouts and contacts. He brought in players of the quality of Thierry Henry (Â£10,5-million), Patrick Vieira (Â£4-million), Kolo Toure (Â£500 000) and Cesc Fabregas (nominal).
“What does he know about English football, coming from Japan?” So sneered Sir Alex Ferguson when Wenger first commented on Manchester United’s affairs.
Ferguson’s view was typical of many in the game who doubted the wisdom of appointing an overseas coach. Over the years Wenger has given credibility to foreign managers in the league least likely to embrace them.
“Island mentalities are historically mistrustful of foreign influences,” Wenger says. His impact paved the way for other foreign managers. He is now the second-longest-serving manager in the Premiership, after his old friend from the north.
Drink? Not for me
The managers’ post-match drink is an English tradition almost as revered as shaking hands at the final whistle. Sharing a glass or two was second nature to old-school managers such as Jim Smith, Harry Redknapp, Graeme Souness and Ferguson. Wenger said “no thanks” because he simply did not see the point. Ferguson called Wenger “aloof”.
The Frenchman is not a gallant loser, either. His duel with Ferguson has been generously loaded with spice. Their verbal jousting reached a peak when the Manchester United manager claimed his team were the best in England when they had fallen out of the Champions League in 2003. “Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home,” quipped Wenger.
Now that Mourinho has given them a common enemy there is a suspicion that they secretly rather like one another and are more alike than they would care to admit.
On October 12 1996, Wenger selected his first Arsenal team for a game at Blackburn. It comprised nine England internationals (a 10th came off the bench), one Wales international and one player from overseas, Patrick Vieira. Fast forward almost a decade, and the Arsenal team that scored a famous victory at the Bernabeu in the Champions League contained not one Englishman. Wenger believes in good players, rather than nationalities. “We represent a football club which is about values and not passports,” is his maxim.
“I did not see it” is a catchphrase that has entered the English football lexicon. Wenger’s absurd excuse to exempt him or his team from commenting on any misdemeanour became a cliché quite early in his Arsenal reign.
Although he is much more convivial company than his image suggests, Wenger is far more concerned about keeping away from the limelight than courting popularity. Few personal details about him are in the public domain and many football fans in England are unaware he has a wife and daughter. He jokes that he only knows how to get to three places — the Emirates stadium, the training ground in Hertfordshire and his house. — Â