Speaking in an exclusive interview with L’Équipe ahead of the release of his autobiography, titled “My Life in Red & White,” available in all stores and online from 13th October, Arsène Wenger touched on a myriad of topics – here for you in English.
What affect did it have on you, to put out words on your life as a manager, and your life?
At the beginning, it was boring, frustrating, because the past was all muddled in my head. When you are a manager, you are always looking to the future, you don’t look back much. Here, I had to make an effort to look at what happened in my life. And that, that is denying your future. It was not easy, mentally. At the beginning, I did not really see the interest in retelling my life. But it became more and more difficult to say no, and I was in a period where I was not incredibly busy either. So I did it at the very least for my family. I said to myself one day, someone will ask themselves: what did this old guy do?
You describe your Alsace upbringing without football managers and without tractors…
I suffered more from the absence of a tractor than from the absence of a manager! With hindsight, it is difficult to imagine not having a manager until the age of 19 and then end up spending your life in football. In any case, that is truly what happened. I played in my village. For a long time, there was no lighting, so I could not train in the evening. We played on Sunday, after Mass.
You have an attachment to your birthplace, but you wanted to leave as quickly as possible?
I often think about that. My brother had the same upbringing and did not leave. Was it inside me? I was curious. There is something that I do not touch on in the book: at 25, I left with a friend to Hungary to see how the communism bloc worked, and I came back with the idea that it was going to collapse. I had the idea to discover the world and I still ask myself the question today, when we are faced with cultural differences that some find difficult to live with: in a football team, racism has never been a problem, nor have cultural differences been a problem. Yet in real life, cultural differences, in the long time, will be much more difficult to fight against than racism.
With hindsight, what did you have that others didn’t to have this life?
I do not think that I had something more. I had the good fortune to be passionate and to meet people who believed in me at different stages of my life. But I also had real passion, which still exists today. When I get up in morning and there is a good match to watch in the evening, it is not the same sort of day for me.
In an interview, you said that young footballers, to convince, you had to say you were a student (of the game), but that today, you have to say the opposite…
A sportsperson, when I was young, was thought to be intellectually limited. We succeeded in achieving a miracle, placing intellectuals into sport, so well that they no longer know if we are idiots or not (smiles). Me, I was nicknamed “The Professor” because I had glasses, but a manager, by definition, is not a pure intellectual: you have to have clear ideas, but above all, transmit those to your players, that he shows them, that he convinces them. Ideas are not enough.
Why are you no longer a manager?
Because, somewhere, I did my job in a unique way that no longer exists in the world. In England, it was difficult for me to go elsewhere, I refused. And at the same time, I was 70, and I was asking myself if I wasn’t entering into one fight too many. Besides, I was made to feel it sometimes. I sort of had the example of Guy Roux in front of me, who left Auxerre after staying for a long time (in 2005, after 44 years at the club), and he was not happy (at Lens).
Guy Roux, in fact, once said that the energy of a manager is a kind of like libido, and that when it drops, you have to stop…
I was not yet at that stage, even if sometimes you don’t realise it. The things that a manager can no longer do, he no longer needs to do, today. There are so many assistants! You can always convince yourself that you compensate for diminishing physical strength with a better anticipation of the problems. You really need physical strength to do this job, yes, but that is not the main reason: I never took a break, and after 36 years straight on the touchline, I needed to think. It is obviously this unique relationship with Arsenal (between 1996 and 2018) that made it more difficult to go from one club to another. Today, I ask myself if I was wrong in not taking Lyon, in May 2019, when it was offered to me.
Why did you reject Lyon?
I was not ready. It felt too early to jump back in. I hadn’t totally finished the mourning. I had Sylvinho (Lyon’s manager until autumn 2019) on the phone, he called me a little while ago. He suffered from his experience at Lyon because he is a sensitive guy.
It has been 2 years since you stopped. Is it liberating or a regret?
Liberating. I spent so long in this job… And I never did things in half-measures. From the morning to the evening, seven days out of seven, I only did this. So, I can appreciate a form of freedom.
Is freedom as good as you were hoping it would be, or a bit less good?
The good thing is not being pressed for time. What is less good, is not having clear objectives. That, that is difficult. What is less good, too, is to have completely cut the cord with the club where I built each stone. In the morning, you get up, you want to go to the training centre and you can’t, it is finished. When you bought the pitch, chose the spoons and forks, that is not easy.
Your modesty deprives us, in the book, of your final day at Arsenal…
It was a day where I had prepared myself to block emotions. 20 years of your life that are ending… Everything that I learned in my job as a manager allowed me to survive that moment, to control my emotions. When I started this job, I suffered so much physically that I never thought that I would make it. So, the day of my departure, I wanted to be up to the task. Not to crack, to show that I was handling it. It was afterwards that it was hard. Arsenal, it is my home. And the day after, to no longer be at home, that is not easy. I went in alone, to get my things the week leading up to our last match away from home, at Huddersfield (1-0). Since that match, I have never been back to the Emirates, nor Colney (the training centre). It was a real breakaway, in the sentimental sense.
Are you recovering?
Time is a very good doctor, but my love for the club has not disappeared. The pain not totally either. Me missing football has not either. Max Hild, who gave me a leg up at Strasbourg, told me that when he stopped managing, it took him two years to get over it. It is a delay that is roughly normal. I am seeking to live with the missing piece rather than waiting for [that sensation] to disappear. When I am contacted, I struggle to completely say no, and to renounce being part of that world. I need for it to still be possible. I cannot yet say: it is over. But, at the same time, the longer this goes on, the more difficult it is to come back.
How will you go back to Arsenal? How will you choose which day to do so?
Go to a game, take it easy. I have often received offers to come back. But I think that the club is in a phase of reorganisation, my former players are in the process of taking control. We will have to see how that goes and things will happen naturally. For the moment, I am not ready to do it (go back).
How will you come back into football one day?
I have not left it, I am at the heart of football! But I am not longer at the heart of results. If I come back onto the pitch, I think that it will be with a national team. But it is no longer an obsession for me, I live through football differently, without being ready for a fight every Saturday. If desire takes me there, the shortest and most reasonable path would be with a national team. At club level, I gave, and as I am someone who does long-term projects, it will become more and more difficult for me. The next 22 years will be the most difficult (smiles).
In your book, you give three keys to judging a player: control of the ball, taking a decision, executing on a decision. Do you continue to watch matches like that?
If we take the final between Bayern & PSG (23rd August, Champions’ League), I found, for example, that the Bayern players were constant in the quality of their decision-making. And the speed of being available following ball recovery, they always want the ball, even at 1-0. Not being influenced by the score in decision-making is vital in football at the highest level. But when I see a player, I try to see his intelligence through the decisions he makes.
You also cite the number of times that a player at the highest level takes in information before receiving the ball, compared to an average player…
That is the difference. The number of times that a player takes in information before. You see it, because he has a solution immediately available to him. We all know that you have to take in information, but what is interesting, in the study that I did, is the number of times that he takes information in before receiving the ball. A great player takes it in between six to eight times, and a good player between four to six times. But sometimes, in matches, I showed FIFA examples of great, well-known players who only look at the ball.
In the book, you describe the loneliness of the manager. Now that you are no longer managing, do you feel less lonely or a bit more lonely?
Sometimes, yes, I feel more lonely, because I am no longer doing urgent and important things on a daily basis. But I am less lonely in my life with family and friends, because I have more moments to share with them. But the lonely moments are more numerous and longer. It is difficult to live through this change in my life. At Arsenal, when I arrived, I already has three guys waiting for me. And now, I have nothing.
Is one of your reasons for stopping the difficulty you had with contending with the losses?
When you are not able to advance the club on the European level, that is difficult to contend with. But I continue to curse our unfavourable draws, Barcelona, Barcelona, Barcelona and then Bayern, Bayern. Only one time we did not have one of those two, we had Monaco and we got done like idiots (1-3, 2-0 in 2015). Even though Monaco had a good team at the time. The draw, it matters, we saw that with PSG this season in the Champions’ League. Les Parisiens can have regrets, but I think they overestimated their semi-final against Leipzig (3-0).
Each defeat leaves a scar in my heart. We are all halfway between the love of victory and the hatred of defeat. But I really don’t like losing. I can explain how it happens, this guy who didn’t stick his foot in, the other guy who did a bad cross, the goalkeeper who should have gotten it… to the point of going crazy! That was a dominant trait in my career, the pain of defeat. It is also one of the reasons that meant I didn’t just dive back in. I am sure that your health pays a major price. After conceding a goal, I sometimes felt like my arteries were clogging. I finished with 58% wins, around 20% draws and 20% defeats: to lose 1 match in 5 is already tough. But I think about the guy who wins 1 match in 5!
In the book, when you choose not to cite names, is it out of contempt or resentment?
Neither. But it would be more out of contempt (smiles). What I take from the book, and my life, is that with a bit of luck, you can have a superior life to the one you imagined, and that it could be interesting to share what one has learned. That humans could do a lot better, but also can surprise you in a good way. What stays with me is not the enmities or the pettiness.
But do you overlook the fact that when you were Monaco manager you were undoubtedly robbed of titles?
Yes. But what can I do about that today?
You had the choice between saying it and not saying it.
I can say it, but how can I prove it? And then, the majority of the players implicated in it are really struggling today… At the end of the day, everyone lives with their values. Things are going pretty well, but you cannot take a different path in life. It is better not to dwell on all the guys who caused your problems because otherwise you end up frustrated and angry.
During your 36 years as manager, how many of those years brought you happiness?
In general, I was really happy to do this job. But the moments of intense joy, they amount to 2% to 3%. Those flashes are rare. You are happy in the evening when you win. If happiness is loving the life we lead, I was happy. Moments of joy are something else. But it happened to me to be in training where the team was playing at an incredible level, and where I said to myself that I would pay to see that. Having got to know life outside of football now, if I was to start life again tomorrow, I would become a manager again, and do the same, for 40 years.
One of your last lines in the book is: “I am convinced that there are only incomplete lives.” What have you not finished yet?
There are loads of things that I did not win as often as I would have liked to, others that I did not win at all, but also a lot of things that I neglected, notably my family. All lives are incomplete, by definition, you cannot succeed at everything.
You have notably said no to Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, PSG and the French national team. Is that a regret?
Yes, still. They are truly great clubs. Jean-Claude Blanc also wanted me at all costs to go to Juve. It is a regret, but also a source of pride, to have served my club until the end, to have gone right to the end of the project. That means more to me than all the titles. I am the manager who stayed for the longest at Monaco, seven years. I was therefore made for this type of loyalty. I am also someone who has an intrinsic motivation. I always want to better myself and people like me want to do their job as they see fit. I am not sure that I could have done this job in the same way at Real Madrid.
Was it hard to talk about yourself in this book?
Yes. Very difficult. I don’t like it. I am shy. I am from a generation where we did not talk about ourselves. I have never been very prominent in the press, nor very present in the media outside of my job. It was tough. But writing this book is also a way for me to say: my job as a coach is over. This is why I refused before. Ageing is not a weakling’s business (smiles).