A few months ago, Jose Mourinho branded Arsene Wenger a “specialist at failure” due to his lack of trophies in the past decade or so. The media lapped up the phrase in their click-bait articles and the social media world went into a frenzy about Mr. Wenger’s perceived failures. Last week, Mourinho once again taunted other clubs including Arsenal while boasting about his team winning the EPL.
I could not help but comment on a Telegraph article and asked “How come no journalist reminded Mourinho of the vast difference in resources at the disposal of the two managers during that period? Moreover, how can someone be so smug about success built on the back of wealth which was obtained through questionable means1 that he ridicules a fellow manager”? As expected, I received a heap of abuses from Chelsea fans (with no sensible responses actually addressing the question I posed), barring one comment which said “Do you really think Mourinho’s success has just been a result of the money he spent? Has it ever occurred to you that he might be a better manager than Wenger?”
That comment got me thinking, what makes a better manager? Is it solely the amount of trophies you have won? Does anything else matter at all?
I can certainly think of some other points which need to be considered before we’re to pass a judgement on Arsene Wenger that I’d like to list down.
Loyalty to the club
Few days ago I came across an old article2 in the Guardian published in September 2004 wherein, Wenger, amongst other things, talks about the development of the academy and the prospects of new young players like Fabregas etc. What struck me most was the following quote: “(the development the academy and the younger players) thrills me, for one simple reason … to think that nothing major can happen to the club now makes me sleep easier. For example, tomorrow, if the club has financial trouble, I can guarantee you it will not be relegated with the players we have”.
The above quote, which was made shortly after Arsenal had gone 42 games unbeaten in the league, shows that Wenger was fully aware of the financial challenges he faced while Arsenal built a new stadium. There are many managers who are fond of pointing to their CV counting trophies accumulated at various clubs and pronouncing themselves as special. They hop from one club to another when the club is not able to “match their ambition”. The above quote made me wonder whether Mourinho, Benitez or any other manager would’ve been willing to swap places with Wenger at that time, and instead of chasing further personal glory after an invincible season (later rejecting offers from the likes of Real Madrid, Monaco, PSG etc) embark on a journey of financial constraints and battle relegation if necessary, and even bear the taunts of other managers and his own fans, to help the club become financially competitive 10 years in the future? Can you think of anyone? Does this loyalty count for anything?
Doing more with less
While mocking Arsenal’s lack of success, the media barely mentions the financial constraints that Wenger faced in the past decade. Yet how much it matters can be seen by comparing Chelsea’s and Man City’s trophies before and after their sugar-daddy financed spending spree. e.g. Chelsea won a grand total of four major domestic trophies (one first division league title and 3 FA cups) in their 100 years of history before Abramovich!
In the 11 years between 2003/04 and 2013/14, both Chelsea and Man City spent on average an annual net amount of £47m on signing players compared to Arsenal’s £7m – a difference of £40m per year3. To put this in perspective, these amounts were sufficient to buy eleven players of the calibre of Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez (that too assuming 2013/14 prices) with some change left.
Isn’t it fair that Arsenal’s performance under Wenger in that period should be compared to Stoke City, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Tottenham (who spent slightly more than Arsenal) or Liverpool (who spent almost double). How many of these teams have been able to consistently qualify for the Champions League plus build a brand new stadium during the period with that budget?
Romanticism vs Pragmatism
Wenger has been criticised in the past for “not doing tactics” (if so, what does it tell about managers who let him go unbeaten for a season or reach the finals of CL?) or being too stubborn. The truth is Wenger has a philosophy and the gumption to stick by it, unlike some managers who promise to play attractive football but lose their nerve and park the bus the moment they encounter a half decent ball playing team. He is also renowned for focussing on his own team’s strength rather than preparing for the opposition’s weakness. But what seems like his stubbornness or naivety isn’t so!
Some managers treat their players like robots asking them to perform specific instructions and get the exact results they hope for. In contrast, Wenger had the following to say in an interview in 20094:
“The common denominator of successful teams is that the players are intelligent… They can analyse a problem and find a solution. The common denominator in a top level person is that they can objectively assess their performance. You speak to a player after the game and ask him to rate his performance, if he analyses well, you know he is the sort who will drive home thinking, ‘I did this wrong, I did that wrong’. His assessment will be correct and, next time, he will rectify.
“That player has a chance. The one who has a crap game and says he was fantastic, you worry for him.”
On the question of pragmatism, he added: “I am not against being pragmatic, because it is pragmatic to make a good pass, not a bad one. If I have the ball, what do I do with it? Could anybody argue that a bad solution like just kicking it away is pragmatic just because, sometimes, it works by accident?”
The comment shows that Wenger favours signing intelligent players and then count on their intelligence and give them the freedom to make their own decisions on the field. Admittedly they may initially make mistakes when they are inexperienced and things may go wrong. But when intelligent players learn from their mistakes and finally express themselves at the highest level, you get wonderful teams like the invincibles.
Mourinho and Benitez’s methods may by highly efficient and produce results but the football they produce was compared to “shite on a stick” 5 by the Argentine great Jorge Valdano. How many of you remember the name of a single player from the Greece team that won Euro 2004? In contrast how are the Holland 1974 and 1982 Brazilian World cup teams remembered even though they failed win to the World cup? It is understandable when rank outsiders like Greece or even a Stoke or Bolton adopt a functional style but does it suit teams costing half a billion pounds or more to play that way?
Building a Legacy
I have read in the past that when Wenger was about to join Arsenal, the board asked him about his vision for the club and he responded that he wanted to leave the club in a better condition than he found it in.
The fact that Wenger revolutionised Arsenal upon his arrival is beyond dispute. It is well known that he overhauled training methods, nutrition, scouting network, academy etc. He was an instant success too with 3 league titles and 4 FA cups including 2 “doubles” and an “invincible” season.
But foreseeing the importance of living within one’s means a decade before others (witness the introduction of FFP rules), embarking on a long term plan and delivering it to a resounding success (Arsenal didn’t flirt with relegation in that period, instead it flirted with Champions league and Premier League successes) requires great vision, leadership loyalty and courage which is beyond the capability of many other managers.
The day when the bubble in which football exists bursts (and believe me it will one day, no industry can continue to exist in a bubble), we will realise the enormous contribution he has made to Arsenal. If Wenger walks away tomorrow, he would have delivered lot more than he promised to the Arsenal directors upon his appointment having placed Arsenal in a position that many other clubs would envy (just ask Liverpool or Tottenham).
More than a great manager, he is a visionary and a great human being, and that is not something which can be said about a lot of people within or outside football. Barcelona are fond of calling themselves “more than a club”. I think if there is any football manager alive today who can claim to be more than a manager for a football club, it is Arsene Wenger.
1 Roman Abramovich’s binge at the Bridge really is no laughing matter – The Times (behind paywall). For readers without a Times subscription, see this link