SINGAPORE — Two years after his retirement, Arsene Wenger can still captivate an audience, just like he did when he was shaping Arsenal as the most stylish attacking force the English Premier League had ever seen.
From 1996 to 2018, the erudite Frenchman guided the Gunners to three league titles and seven FA Cup triumphs – and did so in a manner that is far different from his greatest rival, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.
Where Ferguson was passionate and domineering, Wenger was calm and persuasive. The 70-year-old brought the best out of his players not through force of will, but through gentle conviction that his footballing philosophy is the way to success.
Now, the man dubbed “Le Professeur” (The Teacher) heads Fifa’s Global Football Development, responsible for overseeing and driving the growth and development of the sport around the world.
With a new autobiography released on Tuesday (13 October) titled “My Life in Red and White”, Wenger sat down in front of an audience at the London Palladium – and thousands of fans via online live streaming – and chatted about his life from a young football fanatic in his hometown near Strasbourg, to his extraordinary 22-year managerial career at Arsenal.
Here are some excerpts from his chat:
Why he has finally released his autobiography:
“I resisted a long time to write the book. In the end, after I lost my brother and my sister, I thought, maybe I have to leave something for my family, and tell those who came after me what had happened. Maybe it's also time to analyse how I’ve arrived at 70 and start to think what have I done in my life.
“I want to show two things basically. The first thing is that, when you're little boy and you have a passion, life can be bigger than your dream. And I believe it's an important message to all young people today, who grew up in an uncertain world.
“The second thing I wanted to share are the human lessons that I’ve learned from human beings. The human being can surprise you, sometimes negatively. My job basically was to say to people, ‘Look, my life and my destiny depends on you.’ But you can do that and be happy in this kind of job.”
What forms the basis of his coaching philosophy:
“I believe that my life as a coach, I basically want to make it as simple as possible. You have guys who have an intrinsic motivation and also an extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from people who set themselves targets. They have an internal need to push themselves; they carry some sort of suffering inside, a dissatisfaction, that they transform into motivation. That motivation comes from the desire to always improve, to set themselves targets, and to analyse what they do.
“Then you have people with extrinsic motivation. They are motivated by goals coming from outside – people say to them, ‘You have to do this much in the game’, or, ‘If you do that, you will get the big bonus’. And they would do it.
I'm not sure I was always successful in motivating people, but I had that desire to understand better the world I live in. And it’s not only based on my pure intuition – science and rationality can also help you to understand better the world you live in.”
How his initial steps into management felt:
“From a very young age, I don’t take defeats very well. When I first started as a manager at age 33, I sometimes felt I had to stop his job, because I'm killing myself – I had to throw up after every defeat.
“At the time, I was alone with a team that had no assistant, no goalkeeper coach, it was just me and the team. My credibility came from my motivation and the quality of my training sessions. There were also players were older than I was when I started, and that demanded a huge commitment.
“But I adjusted, slowly adapted. But to take a defeat was always very difficult, and every big defeat is a scar in your heart forever. A manager who is a happy loser doesn’t get very far.”
How his initial months as Arsenal manager went:
“Even though I was a successful manager in France and in Japan, I had to start from scratch again, and I could understand and accept that. But of course I could see the skepticism among the players. I inherited a team that was predominantly English. Tough guys – you could go into a fight with Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Martin Keown, David Seaman. They were very good on the pitch, and they were very good at night off the pitch as well!
“I had a huge respect for them, and I discovered that when I encouraged them to play out from the back, they were much better players than what I had thought. So I tried to set up my training sessions to not just be based on more modern technical qualities, but also to give these veteran players a new way to prepare for the game.”
What he learnt as a manager from his players:
“The importance of character. When you're a manager, you have to cope with uncertainty, you make decisions, you have to accept the uncertainty of your decisions and be convinced that it's the right one. And to be able to do this, you need character – not personality, but something that is based on courage, honesty, integrity, honour. And I learnt from my players how important it is for success.”
On his rivalry with Alex Ferguson:
“Competition makes you hate your opponent. I know he hated me, and I hated him too, sometimes. (laughs) But when the competition ends, what remains is respect – respect for what he has achieved, how long he stayed in the game, and how much he dedicated his life. Respect comes when the game is over, and you know each other better outside of competition. But when we had competition together, it was always a fight.”
On Arsenal’s unbeaten 2003/04 EPL title-winning season:
“Sometimes you have to put the seeds in the brain, and the answer comes a long time later. In the 2002/03 season, we didn't win the Premiership. So I asked the players before the next season, why did we not win the championship? They told me, “It's because of you set us too high a target. Once we lost a game, we had nowhere to go.’
“And I insisted, I said, I think we can do it but you must really want it. And so we managed to do it in 2003/04. And when we won the championship with four games to go. I told them, ‘Now my friends, you have to become immortal.’ And we just managed to get over the line.”
What he thinks about fan criticism in the final years as Arsenal manager:
“Looking back, what is important is that I tried genuinely to serve this club. Somewhere along the way, people tried to give me bad credit, but I can say I did everything with integrity and commitment. I turned down all the big clubs in Europe; I felt like I was on a mission, and it’s not for me to decide when the mission is over.
“On one side, if you go when you have better offers, people will say you're not loyal. But when you stay with the club, people will say you're too loyal. So it was difficult to find the right moment to leave the club.”
What he thinks of Arsenal under current manager Mikel Arteta:
“I think they’re on a good way up. Last season we had 56 points in the league, which is a very low points total. But from what I see with the players Mikel bought, I think we have a good chance to be back in the top four. Mikel looks to have a good grip on the team, the players have a good attitude. And we have a balanced quality now between defending and attacking. And this season, there's no dominant team in the league yet, so it opens a good chance for everybody.”
How his young self would think of his achievements:
“He would think that it’s not true. Sometimes I still feel like it’s a dream, you know? But to people who have done exceptional things, it’s down to four factors. One, what is your dream in life? Two, how can you achieve your dream? Three, how can you get rid of the negative thoughts that come with it? And four, how can you commit totally?
“I’ve met people who have done such unbelievable things that, if I was there at the start, I would have said they had no chance. But they did it because it was their dream and they were bold enough to do it. And that’s what I’ve learnt in my career – that people are here to try to realise their dreams.”
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