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.
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.