Books

Building up an Arsenal

B Baskar | Updated on December 27, 2020

The autobiography of a coach who revolutionised English football

Arsene Wenger and Arsenal football club are so closely intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate the two. So if Wenger writes his autobiography it will be lapped up not only by the Gunners’ faithful but all football fans. Wenger has been one of the most influential voices in the world of football – thanks to his incredible 22-year stint as Arsenal manager and his post Arsenal life as FIFA’s head of Global Football Development and as a commentator with BeIN Sports.

Wenger begins the book with his childhood in a village in the Alsace region of France which borders Germany. His parents ran a bistro and it is this bistro that Wenger was first introduced to the world of football where the patrons would endlessly talk about the game.

After a middling career as a professional footballer in the 1970s, Wenger turned to coaching. In fact as a youngster Wenger received no formal coaching something he was keen to redress when he became in-charge of the training academy even during his playing days at Strasbourg.

His first major coaching stint was with AS Cannes, where at the training academy he nurtured players like Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Viera and Johan Micoud. His next stint was with Nancy where he honed his ‘holistic approach’ to coaching, which involved not just training and tactics but also dietary regimes massage, mental preparation, sleep and quality of life, an approach to coaching that he would so successfully replicate at Arsenal later.

Wenger’s first major club as a coach was Monaco and it was here he first tasted success winning the Coupe De France by defeating the mighty Olympique de Marseille and reaching the 1992 Cup Winners’ Cup final.

After a brief and fruitful stint in Japan where he pulled an unfancied Nagoya Grampus from 14th to second place, David Dein from Arsenal came calling.

In Wenger’s words, “I arrived at Arsenal on 1 October 1996, and that day changed my life”. It changed the club, too.

Wenger’s emphasis on nutrition in an Arsenal that was still suffering from the boozy excesses of the 1980s, were seen as revolutionary back then. He even brought a doctor from France to explain to the Arsenal players the importance “how to eat, what to eat and how to chew”.

It didn’t take long for Weng—er to taste success at Arsenal, winning the double — the Premier League title and the FA Cup — in 1998. It was in this season that the epic rivalry with Manchester United and his nemesis Alex Ferguson was set in stone.

From 1998 to 2005 were Wenger’s most successful years at Arsenal the crowning glory being the 2004 season where his team won the league title without losing a game. Quite deservedly an entire chapter is dedicated to the ‘The invincibles’. The team which was largely made up of Englishmen when Wenger arrived in 1996, was now more cosmopolitan with Frenchmen Patrick Viera, Thierry Henry, Lauren and Robert Pires, Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp, German Jens Lehmann and Englishmen Ray Parlour, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole.

It is with this team that Wenger truly evolved the ‘Arsenal style’ — attacking and attractive.

The crushing disappointment for Wenger was losing to Barcelona in the Champion’s League finals in 2006. Wenger’s pain of the “European curse” was also made worse by the exit of club icon Henry.

Goodbye Highbury

Wenger astutely managed Arsenal’s move from their beloved Highbury ground to the more spacious and modern Emirates Stadium. This was a challenging period as the new stadium was eating up resources and Wenger had a tight budget to work with. Despite the financial constraints, where Wenger simply could not go out and buy expensive talented players like Manchetser United, Chelsea and later Manchester City, the club still consistently finished in the top four, qualifying for the prestigious and financially rewarding Champion’s League. Wenger says working with a tight financial budget “suited my character and philosophy, taught me a great deal”. It was also in this period Wenger nurtured young talent at the club like Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.

How Wenger managed to consistently test the best teams despite a limited budget is a lesson which corporate managers can learn. The next trophy came only in 2014 with a hard fought FA Cup victory over Hull City. It was in 2017 season despite winning the FA Cup Arsenal for the first time under Wenger finished outside the top four in the league and failed to qualify for the Champion’s League. Wenger stayed on for one more year and left in 2018. Wenger talks about how emotional it was to leave the club which was almost home to him for 22 years.

FIFA offered him a career after Arsenal as head of Global Football Development. Wenger remains passionate about training coaches across the world. It was only after he left Arsenal that Wenger had the time to enjoy the other aspects of life.

This is an interesting account of a football revolutionary. If there is one peeve, the book adopts a rather matter-of-fact tone with touch too much of what Indians would call ‘gyan’ as Wenger seems too eager to share his philosophy of the beautiful game. Missing are the sense of drama and anecdotes that fans thrive on. But what comes out strongly is Wenger’s passion for the game. For the stats buff there is a 55-page appendix at the end.

Published on December 27, 2020

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