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.