HOW ARSENE WENGER DOES IT

ED SMITH | THE GREAT SPORTSMEN | October 3rd 2008
"Arsenal"In each issue of Intelligent Life, the leading cricketer Ed Smith puts another sportsman under the microscope. This time it's Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal, who "has turned evolution into revolution" ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Autumn 2008

If you didn't know what Arsène Wenger did, what would you imagine him to be? Sitting next to him, let's say, in a brasserie in his native Alsace-Lorraine, how many guesses would you need before finally fumbling upon the unlikely phrase, "That bloke definitely looks like a football manager"?

Grey-suited and inscrutable, Wenger could easily be taken for the director of an international bank (he has a master's degree in economics). Cerebral and donnish, he could be an academic or university vice-chancellor--Arsenal fans call him "le Professeur". Or you might imagine he was a diplomat, or a foreign-office mandarin, with a keen sense of process and bureaucratic order.

But Arsène Wenger as a football manager--"Come on lads! Wind yer neck in! I'm the gaffer round 'ere son!"--somehow doesn't trip off the tongue. You sense that Wenger would have made a great contribution as a thinker in whatever job he had taken. That he chose the cut-throat, laddish world of football says a lot about him--and about how sport has evolved.

What is the nature of Wenger's achievement at Arsenal? After Bruce Rioch was sacked in 1996, Wenger's first task was to connect with Arsenal's existing culture, which was red-blooded, to say the least. Heavy drinking and gambling were as central to the culture as the pragmatic, puritanical style of play. Wenger's temperament is the opposite-drowning his sorrows with a few pints and a large punt is scarcely his style--and he must have been tempted to make radical and immediate changes. But Wenger stuck with much of the existing squad and still managed to win the Premiership-FA Cup double in only his second season.

Since then, Wenger has turned evolution into revolution. Arsenal are now synonymous with a brilliant, athletic and refined form of the game. Wenger's business acumen and eye for talent have become legendary: the list of players he has bought cheap and sold for millions is endless. He is also resilient when big names make contractual demands. Most managers pay lip service to the idea that no player is bigger than the club. But Wenger holds his nerve--mainly because a conveyor belt of young talent is a major negotiating weapon. At Arsenal, there is always someone ready to take your place.

Whereas the old Arsenal, under George Graham, were criticised for their dourness, Wenger's team are said to be too pretty by half. Critics point to missed opportunities in the Champions League, four seasons without a Premiership title and an inability to eke out vital points on off days. "Stop trying to walk it in like Arsenal" is now a standard rebuke to any side who neglect good scoring opportunities in favour of the perfect goal. Their arch-rivals Manchester United have been more ruthless in their acquisition of wins and trophies.

Wenger has been left as the aesthetes' hero. "There go Arsenal," the purists purr, "playing their beautiful game again." For others, Arsenal too often adorn the match and too seldom define it. This spring's Champions League quarter-final second leg against Liverpool was a case in point. Arsenal played some of the best football imaginable--"they passed us off the pitch," Liverpool's Steven Gerrard admitted--but they lost 4-2. Wenger's supporters and critics were both proved right.

Perhaps Wenger has relished his role as champion of the beautiful game rather too much. It is one thing to play a superior brand of sport as an accidental by-product of trying to win. Everyone likes that. But when style is held up as an end in itself, people get jumpy--unfairly but inevitably--about your priorities. In sport, sometimes even talking about flair is mis-construed as denigrating winning.

In truth, I think Wenger pursues victory as ruthlessly as any manager. The style, I suspect, grew partly out of the economics. Wenger's tactics rely on pace and brilliant athleticism--qualities he knows he can find in relatively cheap and unknown African players. And Wenger loves to balance the books.

Ed Smith Returning to our Strasbourg brasserie, perhaps the strongest trait you would detect in the diner on the adjacent table is his independence of mind. Neither an establishment figure nor a non-conformist, Wenger shares with Mike Brearley, the outstanding former Middlesex and England cricket captain, a certain hard-to-place-ness.

Wenger might do well to remember that independence of mind. He may need to be independent even from himself, and not be a slave to his own ideas. His next masterstroke might be winning ugly, as sportsmen call it. For a few seasons now, Arsenal have been football's romantics and purists. But any strategy, no matter how well thought-out, is weakened by over-familiarity.

No one wants Arsenal entirely to relinquish their exquisite style. But it will have even more converts if it is shown to pay dividends. A paradox, then--a few ugly wins for Arsenal may lead more teams to follow in their elegant footsteps. The idea has a symmetry that might even appeal to the professor's sense of balance.

Image Source (top): wonker/flickr

(Ed Smith, pictured above, is captain of Middlesex County Cricket Club. He has played baseball and written several books, including "What Sport Tells Us About Life" His last article for Intelligent Life was about tennis great Roger Federer.)