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.