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.

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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.

There was only one signing before the Invin­ci­bles season: Jens Leh­mann.
He was the last piece in our puzzle that was missed. He was a winner through and through. I had long dis­cus­sions with him before reaching an agree­ment to sign him for us. Back then I got an impres­sion of how dif­fi­cult this guy could be. But I thought; If he is as deter­mined and straight on the pitch as he is in the nego­tia­tions, I am fine with it.

He wrote in his bio­graphy that he had fights with you for twenty minutes and after­wards you both talked to each other about pri­vate mat­ters, like not­hing had hap­pened.
That is cor­rect. I like him very much. He is a straight guy and goes for it. And most import­antly: He is reli­able. He doesn’t like to be average.

Is it true that after you won the Cham­pionship at Spurs, there was an argu­ment in the dres­sing room bet­ween you, Sol Camp­bell and Jens Leh­mann?
We were deba­ting about the penalty for Spurs in the very last minute that Jens caused. The three of us were obsessed with win­ning and on this day, we won the title but just didn’t win the game. It might sound hard to ima­gine but these guys were dif­fe­rent to others. They didn’t accept a mistake. It took a while to calm down after the game. If you had ent­ered this dres­sing room in this moment, you wouldn’t ever, ever have thought that we have just won the league. It was an aggres­sive atmo­s­phere, people were shou­ting: Why did you cause that penalty? What is your pro­blem?

So you didn’t cele­brate?
We cele­brated later. The job wasn’t finished. I told the guys that they might have won the league, but now they should become immortal by win­ning the league without a defeat. It wasn’t about the title, it was about immor­ta­lity. There were still four games remai­ning. 99 per cent of the title win­ners lose the game after. So there began my chal­lenge. At Ports­mouth, I had to play Johan Djourou right-back, we had a lot of inju­ries and Ports­mouth were strong. We were lucky to draw. In the very last game versus Lei­cester, we went 0 – 1 down and I thought: F***s sakes, how stupid can we be to lose the very last game.” But in the end, the pride of my guys always took over – we won 2 – 1.

Were there other moments during the season when you feared that the dream was over?
Many. We had 26 wins and 12 draws. Every draw could pos­sibly go in the other direc­tion. It helps to have good players, but you need to be ani­mated by some­thing deeper. That is the inte­res­ting lesson: The players refused to lose because they had some­thing to lose that was more mea­ningful than a game.

The past teams of Bar­ce­lona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich in their prime, they were all tech­ni­cally better than today’s teams“

The style of Arsenal’s play really stood out. Spea­king about the Spurs game when Vieira scored, it took your team only 11 seconds from win­ning the ball inside their own box before put­ting it into the net at the other end of the pitch. Counter-attacks looked like cho­reo­gra­phies. How dif­fi­cult is it to prac­tice that?
The con­di­tion for it to be pos­sible is based on the qua­lity of the players. When you have that, two things are important: the timing of the pass and the qua­lity of the decision. In the modern game, foot­ball has become more indi­vi­dual. It has become common to have fab­ri­cated stars. I told my players at Arsenal that they have to dig deeper into the game to see what they can get out of it tog­e­ther – rather than for their own indi­vi­dual well­being. In that case, foot­ball can give you more. Today, the phy­sical side has taken over the tech­nical side of the game. That is why I believe that we have to adjust the player’s edu­ca­tion.

Do you want there to be more focus on kicking than run­ning?
Today you have mons­ters at every club who run 100 meters in under ten seconds. It is all about phy­si­ca­lity. But the past teams of Bar­ce­lona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich in their prime, they were all tech­ni­cally better than today’s teams.

Is this the reason why 16-year-olds get into the game, and 31-year-olds end their careers early more often?
I don’t know. What I can say is: If you take a young group of pro­mi­sing players under 20, you can say that there is talent but before the age of 23, you can’t really tell how a player will develop. At the age of 20 you have the first sepa­ra­tion bet­ween good and average. At the age of 23, you have a sepa­ra­tion bet­ween the excel­lent players and the good ones. Then you can see the Messis and Ronaldos evol­ving just by their con­sis­tency, by how they are absor­bing and coping with dif­fi­cul­ties on the pitch.

Which player deve­loped better after the age of 23 than you had expected?
Thierry Henry. He deve­loped so fast. I put him up front as a centre-for­ward because I saw him in this posi­tion at Monaco. After­wards he lost his instinct, was placed on the wing, and I tried to revi­ta­lise his senses. When I took him in trai­ning, all I focused on was the timing of his runs. So it all was about for him to rea­lize when it was the very best moment to start a run and from where.

He was emble­matic for the team because he tended to move to the wing to create some space for his runs. Every posi­tion in that Invin­cible“ team seemed to be fluid in attacking, because there was always ano­ther guy who filled the gap auto­ma­ti­cally.
Henry was quick to ana­lyze the game of the oppo­nent. After ten minutes he knew for example that a cen­tral defender was too much on the left, or weak on the right foot. Henry rapidly knew where to move to exploit the weak­ness of the oppo­nent. And Robert Pires syn­chro­nized his moves with Henry’s. Robert was unbe­liev­able and ready to serve Henry. Even when he was 45, I invited him for trai­ning with the cur­rent Arsenal squad and he was still tech­ni­cally one of the best players.

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You spoke a lot about the intel­li­gence of players (on the pitch). And you made tests for players exami­ning how much infor­ma­tion they handled before taking the ball.
Yes, it was about the infor­ma­tion players con­vert before they get the ball. Where are my team­mates? How much space and time do I have? Where is the oppo­nent? If you play simple foot­ball, you wel­come the ball, take a decision, and exe­cute your decision – that is all. But what I tried to ana­lyze is what you do in those ten seconds before. Because this is really important for your decision. I worked with a uni­ver­sity and we put cameras on players which observed their move­ments and views. The great players take 6 – 8 infor­ma­tion, the good ones 4 – 6 infor­ma­tion. So the more you know about your sur­roun­dings on the pitch, the better you play. Great players keep tur­ning their head around before they get the ball. Do you play foot­ball?

On an ama­teur level.
So, up there you maybe take zero to one infor­ma­tion. (smiles)

There are some myths regar­ding your trai­ning ses­sions. One is you let 11 players play against 0 one day, the other day 11 against 11 – but one team wasn’t allowed to move.
True. I wanted to train the con­nec­tion of the players, their pas­sing and move­ment without obsta­cles.

Second myth: When you dressed up for trai­ning, the first thing you put on was your stop­watch.
Also true. The evo­lu­tion of the game is that a manager gives his team to a spe­cia­list. At the begin­ning of my career, there was only me and the team. So I had to inter­vene ins­tead of just obser­ving the ses­sions. I myself was a fit­ness coach, tac­tical coach and ever­ything else. I needed a stop watch. I kept it – and I still time my life. Timing is ever­ything. I timed exactly every game and every trai­ning.

You talked about the phy­sical side of the game. There are a lot of ex-players at Arsenal who say that their phy­sical strength came from your change of the nut­ri­tion. Alcohol became for­bidden, you put chi­cken on the table ins­tead of chips. It felt like a revo­lu­tion back in those days.
I don’t think that this was the key for our phy­sical strength. It was a part of it. You have the visible trai­ning and the invi­sible trai­ning which means: nut­ri­tion, sleep, pre­pa­ra­tion for the game. A club has to create an envi­ron­ment that allows the team to per­form well. Nut­ri­tion is an important part, but not the only one. It is like the petrol you put in the fuel tank. In modern day foot­ball, a coach has to per­suade or con­vince the players of his methods, he has to speak to their indi­vi­dual needs. I myself am not the best nut­ri­tion spe­cia­list, but I brought in a spe­cia­list so he exp­lained to the players why some things might help them to per­form better.

During your first season at Arsenal, the players at the team bus were chan­ting We want our Mars bars back” – how did you respond to that?
(laughs) I remember my first game. I asked the physio: What is wrong? Nobody is tal­king.” He ans­wered: Because they are all hungry. They didn’t get their Mars bars.” I changed their habits but they got used to it. Your body has a memory. The modern sport is about mar­ginal gains that can make the dif­fe­rence.

One sup­porter from the Arsenal Fan club in Ger­many asked: Arsene Wenger changed the nut­ri­tion to more healthy food – so how come there was Pizza around after they lost at Man United (in the first defeat after 49 games)?
At Old Traf­ford, the home team puts food in the dres­sing room of the visi­tors. Some of it was Pizza. So a slice of it was thrown at some offi­cials from United.

Your player Cesc Fab­regas was so furious he threw Pizza at United manager Sir Alex Fer­guson. What do you remember about this inci­dent?
Loo­king at it today, it was funny. But of course at the time it created huge pro­blems inside Eng­lish foot­ball. We were domi­nant in the game before United were awarded an unju­s­ti­fied penalty. We felt betrayed when we lost this game after being unde­feated for 49 games. It was real rob­bery.

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How do you speak with Sir Alex Fer­guson about these duels today? It is said you exchange messages from time to time.
Today, we speak in a friendly and kind manner. Once you are not in a com­pe­ti­tion any­more, the rela­ti­ons­hips become natu­rally better. But when you are in fierce com­pe­ti­tion, it can get harsh. And it got harsh.

It became very tense when you accused United player van Nistel­rooy of chea­ting. He got a penalty for United but hit the crossbar – after­wards your players jumped around him and taunted him. Arsenal and you yourself received heavy cri­ti­cism for that beha­viour in public. What impact did that so-called Battle of Old Traf­ford” and the coverage have on the Invin­cible season?
It was the start of our Invin­cible run so to say. It united the team. Martin Keown was exposed in that situa­tion and van Nistel­rooy explo­ited that. At the time, Man United got pen­al­ties for fun at home. They just needed to demand and then they got one. It was an auto­matic dis­tri­bu­tion. It was one cheap penalty amongst many.

In the 2013 docu­men­tary Best of enemies” Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane looked back on the Arsenal-United rivalry and said: There was hatred on the pitch.
There was. Keane was always pro­fi­cient in hating other players. Patrick was a strong cha­racter but he wasn’t natu­rally aggres­sive, of course hard in the duels, but not unfair. He respected the rules. But if you look for a fight, you cer­tainly will get one from him. That’s why the fight bet­ween the two was so excep­tional. Patrick didn’t fear anyone or anything.

Foot­ball can be like art“

You men­tioned in an inter­view with The Times” that Pep Guar­diola at that time asked you to sign him but you refused because you had Vieira.
Guar­diola even came to my home to speak with me. After­wards he went to Bre­scia, but he was at the end of his career. He would’ve fit into Arsenal, but I owed some­thing to Vieira. When I arrived in Eng­land, I was an unknown quan­tity. Alt­hough I was manager of the year” in France, in Eng­land people asked Arsene who?”. The first player I brought in was Vieira. He gave me credi­bi­lity by con­vin­cing ever­yone with how excep­tio­nally he played. Patrick was one of my best trans­fers. Ten years later, ever­yone was loo­king for a new Vieira”, even when he himself was an offi­cial at Man City. But no one could find a new one.

Let’s talk about pres­sure during the unbeaten run. You once said: When I was manager, I didn’t see beauty or plea­sure or rela­xa­tion.” Did the job harm you phy­si­cally?
Look, I managed Arsenal for 1235 games and I missed zero. So phy­si­cally, I wasn’t damaged. And I still play foot­ball today at the age of 70. It’s not bad. If you can kick a ball every day and walk pro­perly at that age, you need to be lucky. What I mean: I loved glo­bally the life I led, but inside that life you have to sort out pro­blems. And the pure joy is just seconds of your career, the rest is hard work. I think you also expe­ri­ence that in your job as a reporter. Daily life is dif­fi­cult. To get out of the boring, repe­ti­tive side of life is very dif­fi­cult. That’s why I always pro­moted sty­lish foot­ball, because it is a way to get people out of a boring life. The aim is to trans­form the game into art. Make the people forget the usual boredom.

So is foot­ball a form of cul­tural task?
Yes, foot­ball can be like art.

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You spoke about there being only seconds of joy. When did you sense them?
When we won. But just when you enter the dres­sing room, there are already the pro­blems of a manager’s daily life wai­ting for you: Who is injured? Who has to be replaced? When is the next game? The anger after a defeat lasted longer than the joy of a vic­tory. Even when I look back at the Invin­ci­bles season, there is some regret because we were kno­cked out by Chelsea in the Cham­pions League. And we were capable of win­ning it as well that year. We drew at Stam­ford Bridge – I had played the full team some days before against Man United, so we lacked a bit of energy. This is still painful for me to think about.

You once said that your arte­ries were clog­ging when your team was con­ce­ding a goal. Was that the case throughout your entire career?
Some­times more, some­times less. You are always angry when con­ce­ding a goal. But that’s what it is like in this job, you have to be angry as a manager. Today the mana­gers are a bit more con­scious about their image, they are like actors on the touch­line. Some mana­gers walk onto the pitch after the final whistle. I always hated that rub­bish. Just go to the dres­sing room and leave the arena for the players!

You always seemed to be very con­trolled. Your spee­ches in the dres­sing rooms are said to be very logical and matter-of-fact. How did you main­tain that serious­ness when obviously being that tense?
You have to show your players that you are in con­trol. You can’t panic every week. If you only reach the players by emo­tions, the players will stop lis­tening to you at some point. You need to adjust to the psy­cho­lo­gical situa­tion of the team. I expe­ri­enced that it is better for our team to keep it logical before the games. Just because there were already enough emo­tions around with that team.

But you even stepped back: Martin Keown said that in the decisive game vs Liver­pool in 2004 that Arsenal turned around, he was the man for the speech at half-time.
He didn’t take over my job, but I let the players talk at some points. Some things on the pitch are only visible for the players them­selves and it is their right to address it. It is important that the players own your phi­lo­sophy, so you can let them carry on by them­selves. It hap­pened that I ent­ered the dres­sing-room at half-time and just asked the players: What do you think?

So you demanded that the players look after them­selves?
I demanded them to com­mu­ni­cate with each other. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a vital part of a team and its impro­ve­ment. A team who com­mu­ni­cates is dynamic. When you lose, players are going into their shell. You have to get them out and ani­mate them to speak on and off the pitch.

Is it true that one way for you to cope with pres­sure was lis­tening to Reggae music?
Some­times yes. I liked Bob Marley. His music was not fab­ri­cated, but hand-made, inspi­ring and rela­xing at the same time. It smells love for life and cools you down. This guy died at the age when foot­ball players retire, at 35. There are simi­la­ri­ties. He came from a poor side of the city like many of my players, he made it thanks to his strength. One of my favou­rite song was Could you be loved?”. I felt it related to the sto­ries in his songs. I also like Léo Ferré, but I guess you won’t know him. It is the French poets I love to listen to.

Did you have other means for rela­xing?
Watching foot­ball. I am ashamed to think how much time of my life I spent watching foot­ball matches. There was no bigger plea­sure than win­ning early on a Saturday morning and to then have the rest of the wee­kend as free time to watch foot­ball. That was the per­fect wee­kend for me.

For me, the mea­ning of life is foot­ball“

Don’t you have reg­rets squan­de­ring time when watching for example a 0 – 0 draw bet­ween Burnley and West Brom?
Yes, but it is like any other cul­tural thing. When you watch ten movies, some are not so exci­ting, or when you go to the theatre ten times, you don’t always feel enter­tained. But I always learnt some­thing from every game I wat­ched.

Would you say you neglected your family?
Yes, I should have spent more time with the family. A guy with a strong pas­sion makes people around him suffer. I feel guilty for that. On the other hand, my pas­sion allowed my family to enjoy a good life. That doesn’t com­pen­sate for lack of pre­sence. But life has no spe­cial mea­ning unless you have found it indi­vi­du­ally for yourself. And for me, the mea­ning of life is foot­ball.

That makes it even stranger to ima­gine you not being involved in the game any­more.
It’s strange for me as well. My plan is to develop a modern infra­st­ruc­ture around the world with FIFA so that every talent can blossom, no matter where he or she was born. We have to bridge the gap and make sure that not all the talents are being attracted to Europe. That is a chal­lenge but of course, on wee­kends, it is hard for me not stan­ding on the touch­line. Foot­ball is a drug for me, but there is a time for ever­ything in life. I leave it open if I will ever coach again.

How close did you come to mana­ging Bayern last year?
Not very close. I had a phone call with Karl-Heinz Rum­me­nigge because people said that I offered my ser­vice for the job at Bayern. It wasn’t true. So it was important to cla­rify that. Bayern didn’t call me for the job either. They made the right decision for Flick. Congra­tu­la­tions to him.

The clo­sest you came to mana­ging a club after Arsenal was Lyon in 2019, is that cor­rect?
Yes. I had offers after­wards but I didn’t take them.

Wenger Getty Images Editorial All 2 461393877 High Res WEB

Why haven’t you been to the Emi­rates since you left Arsenal?
I thought that since I moved away it’s good to be com­ple­tely away. I don’t want to excert a shadow on anyone. The best way was to cut the strings com­ple­tely.

Has it some­thing to do with the cri­ti­cism of some fans at the end of your stay at Arsenal?
Not really. That was a mino­rity. The day I left the fans were abso­lutely gra­teful. I built the trai­ning centre, I built the sta­dium and I paid it back. But some guys lacked respect for me in the end, it’s because of the emo­tions and they are part of it. I for­give them all but it wasn’t enjoyable at the time: When you look at the clubs I turned down (Real, Juventus, for example – editor’s note) and kept on mana­ging Arsenal with little resources, I sensed a bit of injus­tice towards me.

Even ung­ra­te­ful­ness?
In France, we say: Gra­te­ful­ness is the disease of a dog that is not trans­mit­t­able to men. (smiles) In the long run, people respect what I did: I served the club with inte­grity and con­sis­tency. I am very proud of that. The human side of a club in general has been lost. When I started at Arsenal, there were 70 per­sons at the club, now there are around 700. That has an effect on the way you manage a club. But I had the pri­vi­lige to work with excep­tional people in every regard.

When loo­king back at your 22 years at Arsenal, isn’t it curious that it all started by chance with a ciga­rette?
It defi­ni­tely is. Life is about atti­tude, curio­sity and coin­ci­dence. It depends on little things. I would have never managed Arsenal if I hadn’t learnt Eng­lish or if I hadn’t smoked. In 1989, I was watching a game of Gala­ta­saray as part of my job as a manager of Monaco. On the flight back, I stopped in London by chance and used the time to watch an Arsenal game. During half-time, I looked for a lighter for my ciga­rette. A friend of Bar­bara Dein offered one to me, and we started to chat. Bar­bara Dein was the wife of the Arsenal chairman David Dein and later on, she intro­duced me to him. They invited me to their apart­ment and we played cha­rades in Eng­lish.

I liked Bay­ern’s style of play“

Why?
It was a social evening with many friends at his house and so I just par­ti­ci­pated in the cha­rades. They asked me to play and I said: I will try. I don’t remember my role but David thought: This guy is not stupid. We kept in touch and met several times in the south of France. In 1996, he finally gave me the chance to manage Arsenal.

To sum it up: How can a manager make a team invin­cible?
You have to have good players. (pauses) You have to move for­ward, even when you are already good. A manager has to imple­ment the desire to move for­ward and give his team a clear pic­ture of what they could achieve tog­e­ther. Today, it is more com­plex to install that unity. Because the rela­tions inside a club are too com­pli­cated with too many people being involved. But sim­pli­city and cla­rity in the orga­niz­a­tion are keys for suc­cess. The clubs nowa­days are over­loaded with too many people and you can’t really mea­sure the effi­ci­ency of them all.

Will a team repeat an unbea­t­able season?
Liver­pool was not far away. This year they have already lost. They try to improve their tech­nical abi­lity in mid­field with Thiago; Hen­derson and Milner were important but they are get­ting older. But at the moment, there is no hugely domi­nant team in Europe. I liked Bayern’s style of play and Bar­ce­lona in their prime but there is no team you would die to watch. But con­cer­ning your ques­tion: Yes, I think, one day, our record could be repeated. But it will take some time.