Steady Wenger has Arsenal humming
A little over 17 years ago, Arsene Wenger took one of his rare strolls into the middle of a football pitch. As a general rule, he prefers the sidelines. The grass is, he believes, the domain of the players, and as he is not by nature an attention seeker, walking across to the center circle with tens of thousands of eyes upon him is not a favorite pastime.
The venue was Nagoya, Japan. The scenario was a farewell appearance from Wenger, who had agreed at the age of 46 to leave what had been a memorable J-League experience and head to London to join Arsenal. In his baggy beige suit, wearing round, rimless glasses, Wenger stood by the microphone, received a giant bouquet of flowers, and thanked the Grampus Eight supporters in Japanese.
Little did he realize that his footballing life was about to be transformed. In moving to Arsenal, he had no reason to think any further than his contract. A few years have become 17 and counting. A new job in England has turned into what he refers to as “the club of my life”.
It would have been madness for him to think any differently at the time. In 1996, although English football had already begun to broaden its horizons, managers from overseas were a rarity. Aston Villa had endured a terrible experiment with the first foreign coach to try his hand in England, a Czech by the name of Dr. Josef Venglos, whose single season ended with a narrow escape from relegation. That made a strong case to back up the widely held, blinkered view that the British game was for British bosses. “Island mentalities are historically mistrustful of foreign influences,” said Wenger.
As it happened, the bookmakers’ favorite to take over at Arsenal was Johan Cruyff. That in itself would have been a daring appointment, even though his reputation as a globally loved player, and his influential management spells at Ajax and Barcelona were well known. As for this French guy who had been working in Japan, it more or less summed up the sneering skepticism that the headline in London’s main newspaper was “Arsene Who?”
Even the Arsenal players were dubious. Seasoned England internationals in the team made jokes at his expense. One said he looked like a geography teacher. Another did impressions of Inspector Clouseau, the famously inept detective from the Pink Panther movies. Tony Adams, the most important voice in the dressing room, was more serious in his doubts. He didn’t think it was funny and aired his concerns. “What does this Frenchman know about football? Does he even speak English properly?”
As it turned out, he was able to overturn every single reservation. Before long, his players were disciples of his radically different training methods, the newspapers were singing his praises, and the trophies arrived. Wenger was the first foreign coach to win the Premier League. He blazed the trail. Today, the Premier League lists two Portuguese, a Dutchman, a Dane, an Argentine, a Chilean and a Spaniard alongside the long-serving Frenchman in senior roles.
Although little is made nowadays of his spell in Japan, what he absorbed then remains an important part of the manager he is today. Taking himself to a relative footballing outpost after his time competing for trophies with Monaco opened his eyes to different ways of thinking and working. He sounded so intrigued, once, when he recounted how he used to sit in the hotel and admire the care some of the staff put into at the kind of tasks Europeans would find menial. They picked up a piece of stray paper as if it were origami, he said. “That kind of respect for your job was amazing,” he said. He took those little life lessons on to London, and when the going has gotten tough at times, he tries to remain zen.
Although many perceive him to be stubborn, he might argue that keeping true to his own ideas allows him to treat those twin imposters – triumph and disaster – the same. His single-mindedness sometimes looks like a flaw, but for the most part, over 17 years, it has been a real asset.
He stuck to his guns, as usual, over a difficult summer. He kept his nerve and tried not to buckle under pressure when Arsenal lost their opening game of the season at home to Aston Villa. Now Wenger is back on top of the pile, leading the Premier League and with unexpectedly interesting early advantages over the usual suspects.
Arsenal may not be in perfect shape this season – and looking around the Premier League, nobody can boast of that – but Wenger’s ways have enabled the current line up to get the best of themselves.
One notable sign came this weekend, when for the first time in a long while Arsenal looked capable of taking advantage of others’ misfortune. As Tottenham, Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs dropped points, a carrot was dangled for Arsenal to grab during Saturday’s late kick off. These kinds of opportunities have all too often been passed up in the years since the club was last winning trophies.
Wenger will not get carried away. His mantra for the last 17 years has always been pretty simple: Try to win your next game, and let the rest take care of itself.