Arsene Wenger’s 22-year spell in charge of Arsenal saw him lift 10 major trophies, as well as overseeing the club’s move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium. During his time in North London, he guided countless talents on their way to becoming established, world-class stars. Furthermore, the Gunners played some of the most elegant football seen in the Premier League era. Despite the mistakes of his final few seasons at the helm, Wenger has long been recognised as one of the game’s brightest minds. This article will identify some lessons we can take from “Le Professeur”.
Focusing on strengths
Along with so many others, Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, and Patrick Vieira all signed for Arsenal during the early stages of their career. Wenger’s guidance and unwavering support allowed them to develop into Premier League greats. The secret to nurturing talent, he says, is to give players total belief in their qualities. (source: IWC)
“None of us has all the qualities. But we make our life and our success with one quality that is very strong, and we can diminish our weaker sides a little bit. Once a player has a strong quality, my job is then to give him the confidence. But we must not be fooled, we are here to help people who want to be successful. I can not make someone want to be successful, that has to come from him.”
A job for the optimist
Since their historic unbeaten season in 2003/04, Arsenal have failed to win a Premier League title. Supporters grew increasingly tired of the lack of success, and three F.A Cup triumphs between 2014 and 2017 didn’t keep angry customers at bay for long. Although questions were asked of owner Stan Kroenke, Wenger was the target for much of the fans’ frustrations. During the tough times, his optimistic outlook has helped him to cope. (source: NBC)
“In my job, the main quality is to be an optimist. You should see what the club is about after big defeats, it’s like a lost war. Everybody is on the floor, so you have to be an optimist and say to people ‘Come on, we are good enough to pick up and win our next game’. Everyone forgets quickly in life how good he is or how good he can be when things go wrong.”
Building players from the ground up
Despite spending his entire coaching career in the senior game, Wenger has often expressed his views on youth football. Appearing on The Cesc Fabregas Show in 2008, the Frenchman outlined what he believes the focus should be at each stage of a player’s development.
“You build a player like you build a house. The basis of the player is the technique, and you get that between seven and 14 years of age. If you have no technical skill at 14, you will never be a football player. Then the first floor is the physical aspect, unfortunately that is decided between 14 and 17, where you see if they will be quick enough and strong enough.
The second floor is the tactical aspect; does he understand the game? How can I relate to you if you have the ball, do I understand where to go? Then the final part that is decided at 18 or 19 years of age is ‘How much do I want to be successful?’. ‘Am I ready not to go to the disco on Friday night because I want to have a good game on Saturday? That’s what I call the roof, and if you have no roof, it rains in.”
As Wenger sees it, that roof needs to be maintained throughout a player’s career. Speaking to NBC’s Roger Bennett, the former Monaco boss explained the importance of not letting motivation levels drop in the face of setbacks.
“I believe that the life of a strong human being is to have a long-term target, and not to fade during that trip. Who is able to maintain focus? Who is capable of going from A to B without being down every time that you have a disappointment? Who can maintain the motivation level? That is what is really interesting in our job.”
Making strong decisions
Wenger’s decisions in the second half of his tenure at Arsenal were questioned on an almost weekly basis. Why does he keep selling his best players? Why doesn’t he spend any money? Why does he never alter his tactical approach against the big teams? While admitting that he has made plenty of mistakes, he believes leaders must sometimes be strong enough to make unpopular decisions.
“A strong club is where people make the right decisions. What has gone wrong in modern society: It’s not anymore ‘Is this the right decision?’, but instead ‘Is this popular, or not popular?.’ People who have responsibility have to make the right decision, and be strong enough to make decisions that are not popular.”
Turning football into art
Often referred to as ‘Barcelona lite’, Wenger’s sides played mesmerising football at times. Their fluid passing game produced some of the best team goals of the modern era, making them a favourite for many neutral fans. Although he has always reiterated his love of winning and hatred of losing, he recognises the need to entertain. (source: Watch Magazine)
“I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art.”
Patience in football is rare nowadays, and many coaches feel pressured to produce instant success. 23 years ago, a newly appointed Wenger was also conscious of the fragility of a manager’s position. Instead of attempting to transform Arsenal’s playing style immediately, he decided to impose his methods in stages. (source: ESPN)
“I was confident that I could have an impact if I was given time, but I was quickly conscious that I needed short-term success to get to my longer vision of the club. So I decided first not to change too much, and try to get the best out of the team. I changed more the environment of the team and the way we practiced. Then I thought the second step would be to change how the team plays.”
Nobody can question Wenger’s passion for the sport. However, many were unimpressed by his lack of engagement on the touchline. Unlike Jurgen Klopp, or new Arsenal boss Unai Emery, the former Grampus Eight coach has typically been a composed figure. With emotions running high on matchdays, he believes in a considered approach to team talks and sideline input. (source: Arsenal.com)
“Most of the time, you are in an emotional state when you come into the dressing room. You are upset, you are angry. You have to calm down or you can do a lot of damage. You have to not talk too much. When you talk too much, nobody knows really what you said. The players have to communicate as well, they know better what is happening on the pitch.”
An Experienced core wins trophies
As we discussed previously, Wenger is widely regarded as one of the great developers of elite talent. In the early years following Arsenal’s move to the Emirates, his teams were made up largely of emerging stars. In hindsight, he recognises the need for an experienced core when pursuing trophies. (source: Arsenal.com)
“To be a real football player, you need to be 23 years old. Before that, you learn your job. You have a great game, and sometimes an average game. The core of the team has to be from 23 to 30. If you look at the national teams, you never win a tournament with a young team. Because it’s more mental at some stage to win something big.”
Intrinsic motivation key to long-term success
Throughout Wenger’s tenure, many players have left Arsenal in their prime. Undoubtedly, a number of them were sold to balance the books, while others exited in search of titles. Some Gunners supporters, however, believe that at least a few of the club’s stars have departed purely for their own financial gain. In Wenger’s view, extrinsic motivation isn’t conducive to a sustainable career at the highest level. (source: Bein Sports)
“The really top, top level competitive people are not motivated by money. Why should Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic win every year? Because there’s something more in there. But for the players who are just motivated by external rewards like money, it can kill them.”