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Legendary Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and the price of passion

A new documentary on former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger reveals what made him successful, and the price he paid for his single-minded pursuit of excellence in the English Premier League.

November 09, 2021 / 06:53 PM IST
Arsene Wenger said in an interview to 'The Guardian' newspaper that

Arsene Wenger said in an interview to 'The Guardian' newspaper that "players must feel at the start that you can be demanding, but as well they must believe that, deeply, you want to help them." (File photo)

‘You suffer for your soup’.

The character of Kramer says to the character of The Soup Nazi in the sitcom Seinfeld.

Arsene Wenger would identify with the line. Arsenal’s legendary coach too suffered for his football, and his stress was real, unlike the Soup Nazi’s comedic sort. The driven Frenchman, whose hatred of defeat was rooted in the humiliating punishments his church would administer when he was a boy, coached English Premier League team Arsenal to several trophies and an aesthetic style of play. But it took a lot out of him. (Wenger is now FIFA's chief of global football development.)

“Competition is something that eats slowly at your life and it makes of you a little monster,” Wenger told The Guardian, ahead of the release of a new documentary, Arsène Wenger: Invincible. “That’s what I became, yes. I spent my whole life in top-level competition and it makes you slowly somebody who is psychologically obsessed and one-dimensional, someone who kicks out everything on the road that is not winning the next game.”

Asked what made this kind of single-mindedness scary, Wenger said, “There are other important things in life – art, for example – that I didn’t explore at all. Maybe only geniuses can be successful in many multi-territorial things. I was not a genius; I had to dedicate my whole energy to one thing.”


And yet, ‘Le Professeur’ was not a screamer in the dressing room, which his illustrious contemporary Alex Ferguson could be. Arsenal Hall of Famer Ian Wright says in the documentary that Wenger was the first manager he had who didn’t “blast you down” at half-time.

That does not mean Wenger was soft. But he feels while a coach can be hard on players, he must do so with their best interests at heart.

“I believe that players have to know that you love them,” Wenger said. “The players must feel at the start that you can be demanding, but as well they must believe that, deeply, you want to help them.”

At half-time in a tense game, Wenger felt calmness and tactical clarity were more important than the ‘hairdryer’ treatment (shouting at players).

“I felt always that the most important thing is that you get a good diagnosis of what’s going on,” Wenger said. “The hairdryer method is more to get your frustrations out – and it’s not very efficient. If you do that every week, people adapt to the behaviour of their manager. I thought it’s more important to be kind, master the situation and give an indication of what you should do. I learned to control myself. Because you can make mistakes when you are out of control that you cannot repair.”

Wenger became a father figure at the club. He commanded so much respect from some of his players that Emmanuel Petit, the former Arsenal midfielder, said he would have climbed Everest without oxygen for Wenger.

But sangfroid deserted Wenger when it came to defeat, resulting, for one, in juvenile touchline skirmishes with the ever pesky Jose Mourinho. Wenger told The Guardian the seeds of his dislike for losing were perhaps sown in his childhood, in the village of Duttlenheim near the France-Germany border. Often, he would talk during church service, and be penalised by having to kneel in front of the congregation.

“I was not the most patient child,” Wenger said. “People went to my father’s pub and told him that I’d been kneeling in front of everybody again. That’s maybe where my hate for losing comes from: being humiliated.”

Also hardwired since childhood was his attitude of seeking constant improvement. As was the norm then, Wenger’s father never complimented him. He’d only say, “You can do better”.

“It was the style of education at the time,” said Wenger. “Today, when you educate your children, you give them more of the drive for quality of life. The generation after the war was more ‘work hard, don’t question that’.”

Not even coaching Arsenal to a Premiership win in 2004 without losing a game earned a “Well done!” from Wenger Sr.

“No, it was not that kind of life. You don’t reinvent yourself at that age,” says Wenger. “He was of course very happy that things went well for me. But that was not his biggest quality, to say: ‘Well done!’ And maybe he was right, because one of the important things in life is to always try to be better.”
Akshay Sawai
first published: Nov 9, 2021 06:50 pm

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