Arsene opens up Wenger: I’d have loved a Roy Keane in my team. He was an exceptional football player but he was always on the fringe of violence
“LOOK we need to be lucky, you lose so many friends who had a good lifestyle,” Arsene Wenger explains, defending the prevailing regimentation of his life.
It is just after 10.30am on Wednesday, five full hours after the commencement of his day in a small gym he has built in his North London home. He chats from a landline in his office, ‘Le Professor’ at 70, no longer a football manager, yet still – palpably – entranced by the game.
His work for FIFA (he is Head of Global Football Development) requires much travel, but whenever home – and he still considers England home today – he rises without fail at 5.30am for a 90-minute work-out.
“At my age, you know training is not about improving anymore,” he chuckles. “It’s to slow down the process of losing something.”
In his just published book, My Life in Red and White, Wenger reveals that he recently lost both a sister and big brother, so it seems natural to ask if that loss has, perhaps, heightened his own sense of mortality. He doesn’t deny it.
“It makes you more conscious of how quickly that can happen,” he says. “People who you think, subconsciously, will be there forever can go. You cherish life a bit more. When you are in football, maybe you don’t think about that.
“I think the most important thing is to have targets and focus on something that keeps your mind busy. If you don’t do that, you wonder about life and maybe become a bit more cautious. Life has to be lived as long as you’re there.”
The book is, in a sense, a chronicle of unhealthy obsession. An admission of neglecting those around him in service to a game forever pitching him towards emotional extremes.
At just 34, while coaching Nancy, Wenger describes how he found defeat “physically unbearable”, once locking himself away from family and friends through an entire Christmas holiday period because of what he considered the impossibility of being sociable.
Over time, he developed coping mechanisms, but never an escape from what felt convulsive and debilitating.
“I’d feel physically sick, I threw up sometimes,” he explains now. “I think we are all a mixture of wanting to win and hating to lose, especially men. From a very young age, I had that. And, at the start of my career, I had to go through a period where I found it so difficult, I thought sometimes ‘I’m not made for this job!’
“But, slowly, I got used to the stress. I mean I survived for 36 years and didn’t miss a game in that time.”
His 22-year reign at Arsenal is broadly acknowledged as a transformative period, not simply for the club but for the English game itself. Yet he encountered a mix of sarcasm and media viciousness on his arrival at Highbury in October 1996, the question ‘Arsene Who?’ splashing across a multiple of back pages despite the fact he’d already been Manager of the Year in France (with Monaco) and Japan (with Grampus Eight).
Lies quickly spread about his private life too yet, within 18 months of arriving at Arsenal, they were crowned English champions, setting in train a rivalry with Alex Ferguson and Manchester United that would gust through the next decade with flaring, sometimes crazed intensity.
An intensity perhaps crystallised by near-lawless scenes at Old Trafford on October 24, 2004 when Wenger’s so-called ‘Invincibles’ suffered their first Premier League defeat in 50 games. This was the day an Arsenal player famously threw a slice of pizza at Ferguson, hitting the United manager on the head.
Wenger writes today that Ferguson was “ready to die for his club and I for mine”, but do those days come back to him now as ever so slightly unhinged?
“It was a bit wild in recall,” he acknowledges. “But you have to realise that, back then, the Arsenal players were Arsenal players for life. The Liverpool players were Liverpool players for life. Man United players were Man United players for life. So once these guys were in a big club, they identified completely with it and were ready to have a go. So the hate between the clubs was bigger than today. Today the players move more.”
The individual manifestation of that Arsenal-United ferocity was maybe communicated most coherently in the physical midfield battles between Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane. One of Wenger’s former players, Paul Merson, has suggested that the Frenchman would never have signed a player like Keane because of his challenging personality.
“I would have loved a Roy Keane,” he says emphatically “because he does the job of a manager. So I don’t necessarily agree with that opinion. Roy Keane was an exceptional football player but he was always, as well, on the fringe of violence.
“I don’t know what kind of player he was in the dressing-room but to me, on the outside, he looked like a guy who controlled the team.
“But I had many strong characters in my team too, believe me. When I arrived, I already had Bould, Adams, Keown, Seaman and Bergkamp. They were all strong people and you need those to win football matches.”
There was always the sense, however, of what seemed a higher calling for Wenger’s Arsenal. As if winning wasn’t quite enough. Winning beautifully became the prayer.
To that end, he sometimes seethed openly at the overt physicality of the English game, at the venues synonymous with a bullying mindset, the wild, unpunished tackling, the habitual danger to his lighter, more creative players. Men like Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Gilberto Silva had the self-sufficiency to comfortably fight their corners, but others struggled in a storm of flying limbs.
Wenger name-checks those he believes were brutalised in the absence of protection from referees, revealing what he calls his “sadness” – to this day – at the experiences of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby and Eduardo.
“They’ve all been kicked off the pitch you know and damaged for life,” he says. “They could not make the careers they deserved because of physical violence and without any protection. Look at Wilshere. He is 28-years-old now and he doesn’t play at West Ham, this international class player.”
Against that backdrop, he expresses pride now that Arsenal, broadly, adhered to a desire to play creative, innovative football even on the occasions demanding more stolid ways.
Routinely, before North London derbies, his long-time assistant – Pat Rice – would suggest that Arsenal might be best served against Spurs by picking “fighters”. But Wenger’s faith always lay with the technicians in his squad.
“I tried to overcome physical football with mobility and intelligence you know,” he says now. “It wasn’t easy. Pat was an exceptional assistant to me, but he’d become a bit nervous the week before we’d play Tottenham. The British reflex when it becomes vital is ‘Let’s get the fighters first!’
“And sometimes you’d be tempted to say ‘Yes, you’re right!’ But, at the end of the day, it was always the technicians who made us win games.”
No player brought that theory to life more often than Thierry Henry, arguably the best footballer in Premier League history.
Wenger knew him as a talented 17-year-old at Monaco when managing there, but admits that even he couldn’t have imagined the player he was signing from Juventus in August ’99. On the contrary, he refers in the book to Henry suffering from “a lack of self-belief” at the time.
“Your confidence is always linked to your last experience and his time at Juventus was not all positive,” he says of a player Arsenal signed for £11 million. “When he came to us, that confidence was not fully there.
“It came back quite quickly but, honestly, no I couldn’t imagine then the player he would become. What I want to say is that when you have a group of talented players between 17 and 20, you cannot tell who will be a master.
“You get the first little separation of that group of players at 20. The second separation comes at 23 where some will move even higher up. Henry was part of that group you know, like Vieira. They moved up to be superstars.”
Eleven years ago, Wenger was outspoken in his contention that Ireland should have been granted a World Cup play-off replay after Henry’s infamous hand ball led to the William Gallas winner in Stade de France.
Today, he recalls that moment as illustrative of why VAR should encounter patience now.
“Two billion people see what happened, but one guy doesn’t and we cannot help him!” Wenger said at the time, declaring himself “embarrassed” by the manner of his country’s qualification for the finals in South Africa.
“You suffered a lot from that hand ball,” he says now.
“And you know, they say independently that VAR has improved the right decisions in England today from 84 per cent to 95 per cent. So 11 per cent more correct decisions.
“Where that becomes really interesting is that the referees make over a hundred thousand decisions in a season. That means more than 10,000 more decisions were right because of VAR. So, to me, it’s unbelievable that people still question it. I agree, it’s not perfect.
“Yes, it’s ridiculous when a guy scores a goal and then they have to stand there for two minutes waiting for the answer is it offside or not. But, in 2022, we’ll have an automated system that gives you the decision straight away. This is just the start of it.
“You will get more correct decisions which, for me, is the most important thing.”
Wenger is sceptical of what he considers “a bit too much self-interest” in the ‘Project Big Picture’ now being pushed by the Premier League’s big six clubs as a kind of rescue package for the game in England and he believes the absence of supporters may have been a contributory factor to the early-season sequence of bizarre defeats for those clubs.
“Sometimes you are provoked by the public to revolt when something goes wrong,” he suggests. “It gives you stimulation. But there’s a mental flatness there and the fact that there is no public, teams seem to have less mental response.”
He once considered buying an apartment in the development built on what used to be Highbury, but hasn’t been back to The Emirates since his last game as Arsenal manager on May 6, 2018. A passage in the book even suggests he never will.
“The stadium I built,” he writes “and whose every little secret I know is somewhere I can no longer go: it’s too emotional.”
That view, he concedes, has softened a little since the book went to print.
“At the start, I just cut away,” he says. “I had no relationship with the club at all. With nobody. I thought it’s better you cut it off completely. Because if you go there, people might think ‘What is he doing still here? He’s not in charge anymore!’
“So I didn’t want to embarrass people or annoy people. It is difficult. Because, from day-to-day, you cannot go anymore to your club. But time is a good doctor. It heals quite well.
“So I think I would go again now, yes.”
As to a potential return to management, Wenger does not rule it out, albeit acknowledging the international game seems a more feasible option than any return to the
day-to-day grind of club.
“Look, I took the drug for 36 years and it’s not easy to get rid of that,” he says, laughing. “So I miss it, I don’t deny that. I don’t rule it out.
“But at the moment, I’m just on a mission with FIFA and I will see in a year or two what I will do.”