There’s a little bit of everything in the interview, broadcast in the US at the weekend and transcribed below, with the boss shedding new light on how he copes with the day-to-day stress of management, reflecting on his career highs and lows and discussing his reasons for being an eternal optimist.
Props to Mr Bennett for squeezing the best out of Arsene. We all know Wenger can be guarded in the weekly press conferences he’s contracted to stage at London Colney, but here he comes across relaxed and willing to engage with an interesting line of questioning.
Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy…
Arsene Wenger, this is your 21st season…
Don’t tell me that!
…as manager of Arsenal Football Club. I’ve got to know, how do you retain the energy to keep leading in the crucible of the Premier League for such an eternity. Do you feel like Sisyphus, eternally rolling a rock up a hill only to have it bang over your toes on the way down?
Not really, no. I think I’ve survived because I love the game. I love to win. I love the next game. My job is great because you have to build a concept and show that it works on the pitch. Football is so rich and every time it’s a new experience. I think it’s a good school of humility, it’s a good lesson for every individual who thinks, ‘I found the secret’. In the next football will show you that you found absolutely nothing at all.
I have to ask you…you are a rational, intelligent man. You’ve got a Masters in economics from Strasbourg [university]…what drives you to be a manager? Because there can only be one winner every season Arsene, everybody else is pilloried, mocked, scorned, derided, a tabloid piñata…
The pleasure in it all is to develop people and to give moments of happiness, to get the best out of a team. A season is not only [about] the team who has won the season, that means the last game of the season. A season is a succession of moments where you have the dream [to win], where you are fulfilled, where you are down, where you have to pick up your players, where you have to come back. It’s a fantastic school of being tough, strong and I believe as well, that a life of a strong human being is to have a long-term target and not to fade during that trip. Who can maintain the focus. Who is capable of going from A to B without being down every time you have a disappointment. Who can maintain the motivation level. That is what is really interesting in our job.
Your job, manager, a role that you once described thusly, “I am first and foremost an educator, I try to be faithful to the values I believe to be important in life and pass them on to others.” What are those values?
I know that we live in a period where it’s only about winning at any costs. I think a club is bigger than that and that sport is bigger than that. Sometimes we discover that people who were adored and worshipped for long periods were cheats. As a manager you have an influence on the identity of a club, on the individual course of the careers of the players and of course on the style of play and the results of the team. If you can manage to get these three together you can say you start to become a manager.
You told a sports paper, “I believe a big club must have the ambition to win with style.”
If I could only give you one of these things, playing beautiful football or winning ugly, which would you select?
You don’t think like that. You think the best way to win is to play football where everybody expresses his talent. What is marvellous in this game… nobody has all the qualities, but in a team sport what is very interesting is to develop the strong qualities of each player and to put a harmony [on top] and put that to work together and then be efficient as a unit. What is marvellous in the game is 1 + 1+ 1 is more than 11. When you manage to do that, you have built a team. That will be a team with style because everybody expresses his qualities. And will be a team that is efficient because everybody brings his best to the unit. I believe always that the debate, ‘do you win ugly or [not]?’…you cannot be a big club and say to everybody, “Look my friends, buy a season ticket because we want to win ugly.” That will not go far. You have of course to have the desire to win, but all the big clubs need to have the ambition to do it with style. People want to come and see an experience that fulfils them for the game they love. Everybody who sits in the stand was a football player.
Everybody who sits in the stand thinks they are a football manager…
..as well [yes], but I accept that. They can be sometimes right and I can be wrong, you know. My job is to make sure that out of one hundred times I’m more often right than they are. You have to accept that it’s a public job and that everybody has an opinion. People today are better informed, they know better. On the other hand there’s not to be a dictatorship from people outside because they do not know always what is going on.
One of my favourite quotes that you often recite, “The only way to deal with death is to transform everything that precedes it into art.” You’ve come closest in the English Premier League to creating art as football, the 2003-04 ‘Invincible’ Arsenal team that went unbeaten for a whole season. Even just saying it, it’s almost impossible to fathom. How often, in your rare occasions of rest, do moments from that season come into your head?
My job is to do the best with the players I have and to develop them. What I wanted to do is football played with style. We are the only ones who have done that in the modern era in England, nobody else has done it. I wanted to show to the players that if you seed something in your brain and you really want it, you can do it. That was for me a very interesting lesson. If you set high targets sometimes you do not achieve them as quickly as you imagined you could do them, but if you maintain it, on a longer period you can get it. You never know how good you are as a manager, but if you never lose a game there’s not much room for anybody else to do better.
You won the title on enemy turf that season at White Hart Lane. I’ve always wanted to know, Arsenal vs Tottenham, is that rivalry a fan conception or did it add to your pleasure?
Of course [it adds to your pleasure], but it’s not the main one. As a manager you grow a bit above that. Your demands are internal, your needs are internal and you think, “Have I done the maximum with my players I have? Did I get this team as far as I could get them to go?” That is for me, more interesting than where you win the championship. I must say, even in some seasons where we just finished third or fourth I felt I have done a very good job. There was not much more in those teams, it [the achievement] was as good as winning the championship.
2003/04 was a peerless victory but it occurred at the moment when English football was forever changed; Roman Abramovich bought into Chelsea to lift the title the very next year. Did that massive cash influx and everything that has happened to the game since then transform everything you knew about winning as a manager?
Of course. Of course. It changed. It was a change of era. We have moved from a period where people who were successful bought the clubs of their dreams to an international level where the billionaires bought the clubs in England. We have even moved up again now to state clubs to some states, who own big international investment funds, buy clubs in England. It’s gone up a level. The billionaire is not enough in England anymore. It needs to be a big international investment fund.
And yet, despite this, you claim to maintain a sense of optimism.
Football is dark and full of terrors, how has that sense of optimism not been beaten out of you?
Honestly, in my job the main quality is to be an optimist. If you see the future in a negative way you commit suicide in my job. You are responsible for the motivation of all the people around you. You have to pick up everybody inside the club. You should see what the club is like after a big defeat, it’s like a lost war and everybody is on the floor. You have to be an optimist to say, “Come on my friends, we are good enough to pick up and win our next game. We can do this together. Remember how good you are.” Everybody forgets quickly in life how good he is and how good he can be when things go wrong. I believe my job is to be an optimist.
You say that despite being a self-admitted, notoriously bad loser. You once said you, “experience every defeat like a death”…
Yes. Look in my heart here [taps chest]. Every defeat is a big scar in my heart here. We are all people. We love to win. We hate to lose. Most of the time the guys who love to win are strikers and the guys who hate to lose are defenders. I think a manager is a guy who loves to win, but as well, above all, hates to lose. When you’ve experienced [defeat], in my job, it’s even worse. That’s why I say, “When you lose once be very careful not to lose the game after.” Everybody dreams that you will win the next game and it will all start again. That’s where experience is very important. Just don’t lose the next one, don’t dream to win it, just don’t lose it. If you lose two you have more chances to lose three. Once you lose three you are in a super crisis. That is very important. I believe the quality of a manager is to stop the defeats as quickly as possible. When you lose two, the average run loses three or four or five. When all goes well, all the managers in the world are good. The quality of a manager is when he stands in a crisis and has to face it, how quickly can they stop it?
I’m fascinated by the public and the private and the difference between the two. Elite managers are very good at shifting the blame after a loss; it’s a referee’s fault…
Sometimes it is…
…or a lucky goal, a goal against the run of play. Honestly though, can you talk about how you process a loss to make sure that one loss doesn’t lead to a second or third.
First of all this is like a little bit a Formula One engine. When you don’t win the race you have to examine every little part of your engine. Big champions have one thing in common, they have a very fair assessment of their performance and they find the answers where it didn’t work. And that’s what it’s about for a manager. It’s to go to the essentials because you find a hundred problems, but you have to go to the two or three who are at the heart or the start of the problems. That’s why we try to analyse in a very objective way, statistics as well… numbers. For example, to give you a concrete view on how many chances did our opponents have? How many chances did we create? How well did we build our game up? Where was our biggest problem? Did we stop the crosses? Did we not stop the crosses? Did we allow shots from outside the box? Did we make stupid fouls? All these kinds of things…and you have to find exactly where you were wrong.
When do you do this? You have your press conference after the game or are we talking days?
I managed around 2,000 games so I know there’s a moment when I go to the dressing room and I’m destroyed. Before I go to the press conference, I know now my friend, the state is bad enough, don’t make it worse. There’s a moment of safety, [then] of emergency where you go to the press conference where you know you have to save what can be saved. And after, overnight, you analyse. In the next morning you watch the game again, you get your numbers, your analysis from the game, then you start to work. It’s very important in a press conference just after the game that you don’t make more damage than has already been done.
What role does external criticism play? I imagine as a manager you filter out almost all of it, that you have a thick skin. But what do you let in?
I would say it plays a part in the confidence because it has an incidence and a consequence on the confidence of the players. If I have survived for such a long time in this job it is because I can make a difference between what is hate, what is bad wishes, what is revenge, what is resentment and what is objective. I accept criticism but I just try to analyse, is it fair? Is it right or not? Then I get my own analysis and take into account what people say, yes. But as well, get completely out what is just destined to be spectacular.
The stress Arsene…some games when I watch Arsenal, I look at you in the technical area.
You look at me suffering, and you’re right…of course, I suffer.
How do you cope with the stress?
I started at the top level at the age of 33. I was exceptionally young to have that responsibility at the age of 33. 30 years later, I’m still there. I must say sometimes when I was 33, 34 at half time I said to myself, “My friend, stop this. You will never survive in this job.” 30 years later I’m still here. That means my body has certainly progressively adapted to it. I still suffer, don’t worry. Why? Because you want to win and nobody can guarantee that. Football is spectacular because it is uncertain. But, at the end of the day, my optimistic personality always takes over. The future will be good. Just work hard, put the effort in, do the right things and the future will be alright.
That sense of optimism must be nourished by something Arsene…
It’s nourished by a naïve belief in human beings. My job basically is to say to people, “You do it for me, I believe in you.” If you experience that in a negative way, you become paranoid. If you believe in people, that they want to do their best, you’re an optimist. That may be naïve, but it’s like that.
20 years at Arsenal, it’s an unbelievable achievement. Is there one thing that you would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight?
Look, there are plenty of things I would have done differently. I think how I want to be looked at is, I carried through the generations [the] values of my club with absolute commitment and with absolute loyalty, that I gave absolutely my best to the players, showed the players how great football can be if we get over our egos and put our qualities together. Did I make mistakes? Of course, plenty. But that’s part of my experience as well.
What a remarkable football monogamist. Your relationship with Arsenal spans now two decades; it’s an astonishing amount of time. What’s the most important life lesson you draw from it all?
The most important life lesson is that you meet in your life the possibility to share the values that are important to you. And why did I stay at Arsenal? You know that I had plenty of opportunities to go to very glamorous clubs, but I think when you’ve found what is important for you – that means, you share the values that are important for you with your club – don’t be stupid enough just for an ego or a glory problem, to go somewhere else. I’m very proud of that. I resisted attractions that looked much more glorious just to be faithful to what I believe is right in life.
So that tenacity, that fidelity…
Tenacity is a most underrated quality in life. We all speak about talent, intelligence, glamour. But tenacity is the common thing for every successful person in life. Maintain that motivation to go from A to B and to keep your focus on that target without any weakening. That is called tenacity; stamina in your motivation.