Arsène Wenger is challenged by change
4 May ~ Something must be going wrong when the Guardian runs a readers' poll around the question: "Is everything Arsène Wenger's fault?" The Arsenal manager's relationship with the press was touchy from the start – Arsène who? was the headline that greeted him, as pundits wondered what a manager from the Japanese league could bring to British football. But even so, Wenger struck a chord in the new and increasingly cosmopolitan Premier League. With endorsement from Glenn Hoddle, still a credible voice in 1996, a Frenchman with a university degree and a liking for a more scientific approach to coaching was in tune with the times.
Wenger's emphasis on nutrition and conditioning appeared light years ahead of domestic approaches to coaching, still mired in the influence of the long-ball advocate Charles Hughes at the FA. An innovator by British standards, when looked at from abroad Wenger was simply a manager of his time. Other sports had understood the importance of nutrition for elite performance and continental European clubs were making use of more sophisticated approaches to fitness development. It suited everybody, however, to present him in evangelical terms. And to help he had success – his teams won trophies. His methods seemed to extend playing life (the back four he inherited from George Graham), to reignite dormant careers (Dennis Bergkamp) and, later, to turn promise into fulfilment (Thierry Henry).
A talent for bringing on young players characterised Wenger's work at Monaco – George Weah and Youri Djorkaeff stand out. This was a talent that again made him the perfect man for his time at Arsenal. As the club made plans to vacate Highbury and build a new stadium, it needed a manager who could maintain some success while working within tight financial limits. Not only did Wenger have the coaching credentials, he understood the business context and was able, convincingly, to present an approach to managing a football club where on-field success was just one measure of achievement, not the only measure.
In many ways his success in that role is at the root of his current difficulties. He identified with, and committed himself to, the project of maturing a group of players through the academy route up to first-team level, with only modest ventures into the transfer market. But old habits have not made life any easier for him. His legendary poor eyesight when his team transgresses is more than a convenient ploy for interviews. Wenger has accepted that he often found it easier to blame a poor view than to try to explain the actions of his players. In recent interviews, his answers to questions about the glaring inadequacies of his centre-backs or the lack of leadership on the pitch have contained echoes of the interviews he gave after Patrick Vieira's more robust performances.
It's not obvious, from the outside at least, if anybody within the club is challenging his viewpoint. The board he worked for, until recently, saw themselves more as guardians of the club rather than ambitious owners, although that might be about to change. Wenger robustly defends his "football principles" against any public challenge, but it might help if there was a voice in the background asking if there might just be a point to some of the external criticism.
As Wenger's novelty has waned, as managers from abroad have become common and even clubs in the lower leagues can boast a head of sport science on the payroll, the press have raised more questions about his ability and willingness to adapt. At Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson has had regular turnover at assistant level, though not always of his choosing, that has meant he has sometimes been faced with people who hold quite different views to his own. Although he is still self-evidently in charge, Ferguson has had to adapt. Perhaps Wenger would also have benefited from having his views challenged occasionally. Brian Simpson
You must be logged in to comment. Please register if you don't have an account yet.