A German ver­sion of this inter­view was published in 11FREUNDE #228. You can order the issue in our online shop.
You can find our other lon­greads in Eng­lish here:

This is Java! A trip through a war zone


Mesut Özil: Chro­nicle of a fateful summer

Joshua Kim­mich: What makes the leader of Ger­many’s new foot­ball genera­tion tick?

Arsene Wenger, the squad of the Invin­ci­bles” Arsenal team that went 38 league matches unbeaten during the 2003-04 cam­paign was inge­niously created. In your auto­bio­graphy, you write that the selec­tion of players and the abi­lity to judge them stems back to your child­hood days in the Bistro La Croix d’or of your par­ents. How come?
The bistro was like a kleines Wirts­haus in a vil­lage where you have only far­mers and horses. The far­mers stopped to have a beer there after work. The vil­lage was domi­nated by reli­gion, so people came there also after the mass on Sundays and talked about foot­ball. The head­quarter of the local club was in our Wirts­haus. On every Thursday, the team selec­tion for the wee­kend was made at our bistro and I lis­tened to every argu­ment the players and coa­ches had. I only heard about foot­ball during those days. So I must have thought sub­con­ciously that this game is the only thing that mat­ters in life, and I have stuck to this motto.

You wrote: Lis­tening to the men in the bistro gave me power and instinct. So were these debates the foun­da­tion of you beco­ming a manager?
I was con­scious of the inten­sity of my desire to become a manager but not of the roots of it. Later in my life, I rea­lized how domi­nant foot­ball was in my early child­hood. On top of that, our foot­ball team was very poor, so I loved to win and created an appe­tite for these moments. And because I was very reli­gious, I com­bined reli­gion and foot­ball. I read the mass book during the game. When I was ten years old, I asked God for help when my foot­ball team played.

Maybe it helped later on when the Man­chester United player Ruud van Nistel­rooy hit the crossbar against Arsenal and your team kept on being unbeaten.
(smiles) Maybe. But I unders­tood that having good foot­bal­lers in your team helps more than the mere rea­ding of the mass book.

Is there some­thing that reminded you of the talk in the bistro when buil­ding the Invin­ci­bles squad?
It influ­enced me in three ways. Firstly, what I got from my vil­lage is the pas­sion for the game. Secondly, I had no coach until the age of 19, so I learned how important it is to have gui­d­ance in your life. Thirdly, I was open-minded of all players and people, regard­less where they came from. No matter the back­ground, if you’re good enough, you can play any­where. When I built the Invin­ci­bles team, Arsenal became the most mul­ti­cul­tural team at that time, which typi­cally is much more the case nowa­days. When I arrived in Eng­land in the mid-90s, I had a mono­cul­tural team. I had to change that. It’s not enough to have excel­lent players in every posi­tion, you have to create an iden­tity and values that the team are wil­ling to defend. Your values have to be owned by the team.

Don’t be scared to put high demands on the team“

Amy Law­rence in her book on the Invin­ci­bles called it the United nations of Arsenal”. But how did you pre­vent the players from France for example to build blocks and cli­ques within the team that could end­anger the unity?
I agree with you: Human beings are like that, they con­nect with others who look like them or who share the same back­ground. Argen­tine and Spa­nish players for example tend to sit tog­e­ther at the meal table. But what I always was guided by is that as long as you share the same aim, then all of the back­grounds dimi­nish. I can go to Ger­many with an Indian back­ground but I should be dis­posed to share my cul­ture with the German cul­ture. So when two French players are in Eng­land and an Eng­lish guy joins them, they should speak Eng­lish. As a manager, you have to create a common cul­ture and iden­tity to bridge all other dif­fe­rences.

But how did you do it con­cretely?
The belief that I kept was: Don’t be scared to put high demands on the team. Demand even the impos­sible from them! It might take time, but in life you need both long-term and short-term tar­gets. The long-term target is for the stamina of the moti­va­tion, the short-term target is for the inten­sity of the moti­va­tion. In 2003, I said I want to win the Cham­pionship without losing a single game. We didn’t win the Cham­pionship that year and the players were upset with me.

Martin Keown told you back then that it was your fault for not win­ning the league because you had put too much pres­sure on the team with this quote. Did you have doubts about sti­cking to your target?
Maybe Martin was right. Somehow the players didn’t believe they could do it. And of course, as a manager you always have to deal with doubts. But it was the dream of my life to win a Cham­pionship without losing a game. When you’re a manager, your job is to get the maximum out of your team. And when you don’t lose a game, there is not much room to do better. I main­tained this dream in me from the begin­ning of my career onwards. And there is ano­ther aspect that made me stick to it: During the season, I dis­co­vered how much the fear of losing had ham­pered a team to per­form. So in that par­ti­cular season, there was no fear but pure joy among us. We didn’t even think about the pos­si­bi­lity of losing. The anxiety disap­peared com­pe­tely. We all were just enjoying our lives. The strike of being 49 games unbeaten feels com­ple­tely natural to me when I ponder about it today.

How did you tame these strong cha­rac­ters in your squad? You had guys like Thierry Henry, Sol Camp­bell…
… Leh­mann, Ashley Cole – all strong cha­rac­ters. These guys had cha­risma and humi­lity at the same time.

They them­selves feared to get injured in the trai­ning ses­sions before wee­kends because the inten­sity was that high. Did you share this fear?
Not at all. I had a strong team, we had a good bench as well. There was a total com­mit­ment among the players, but total respect for one ano­ther as well. It rarely went over board. I couldn’t remember a clash within the team. A friend of mine had an important pos­tion in French tele­vi­sion and when I ini­vited him to the trai­ning ground, he told me he was stag­gered by the cha­risma of the players in the morning when they came in. These guys refused to be average, without being arro­gant.

Wenger Getty Images 1217820108 RGB WEB
Getty Images

Robert Pires put it that way: We weren’t arro­gant – we just thought we were unbea­t­able.”
(Laughs) He was right. Man United had fan­tastic players, Chelsea had unbe­liev­able players. But we had a kind of har­mony and com­pe­ti­tive spirit simul­ta­nou­esly.

But clashes in trai­ning occurred, for example when Kolo Toure had his trial. Could you tell what hap­pened back then?
You must know that Kolo Toure came from a school of my friend Jean-Marc Guillou in the Ivory Coast. Kolo had trials at Bastia, Geneva or Straß­burg – but failed there. So when I invited him and told him that he could stay at Arsenal, he was ready to tackle ever­y­body to make it happen.

So first, he tackled Thierry Henry, then Dennis Berg­kamp so hard they kept lying on the floor. And after­wards he even tackled you.
Yes, he tackled us but it was more for rea­sons of enthu­siasm than aggres­si­ve­ness. He was keen to show how much he wanted to stay. I had to go to the doctor, but my injury wasn’t too serious. I signed him the next day because of his desire, his hunger and his phy­sical strength. He was a monster.

His partner as a cen­tral defender was Sol Camp­bell, who was also phy­si­cally strong…
…no he was even harder (laughs). If he stood on your feet, you couldn’t walk for a week, I tell you.

I’m not sure if I would sign Sol Camp­bell again“

And his transfer also had caused mas­sive debates because he came from Tot­tenham, the arch rivals of Arsenal. In your book, you tell the story of mee­ting with him and his agent at chairman David Dein’s house – but during the night.
Oh yes! Until I pre­sented Sol Camp­bell to the press, nobody could have ever ima­gined him in an Arsenal shirt. This transfer remained secret amongst the four of us: him, his agent, David and me. That cannot happen any­more in modern foot­ball because there are so many people involved in a transfer. We walked around the house in the coun­try­side at night. I knew that it would cause heated debates in London, but I was truly con­vinced by the player. I thought he was capable of facing the adver­sity. For me, it was easy because ever­y­body was con­scious that I had signed a great player. But for him, it was more com­pli­cated.

The Arsenal players were said to have boo’d him in trai­ning to help pre­pare him for the hos­tile atmo­s­phere when playing at Tot­tenham.
They did that, and also made their jokes about it. But the situa­tion was really stressful for Sol and he told me after­wards how severe it became. He couldn’t go to cer­tain places for dinner or walk freely in London because of the anger of the Tot­tenham fans. In hind­sight, I’m not sure if I would sign him again bea­ring in mind the dif­fi­cul­ties he faced.

The squad of the Invin­ci­bles only con­sisted of 21 players for four com­pe­ti­tions. Did you pur­po­sely keep the squad slim?
Yes. I don’t believe in too big squads. Com­pe­ti­tion is important for players. When the number of players is too high, it isn’t good for the com­pe­ti­tion within the team. The right number is bet­ween 23 and 25. 21 expe­ri­enced players could also do it – as proven.