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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“
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.