By Tony Attwood
The issue has been raised a number of times: this blog has gone totally over the top in praising Arsène Wenger, instead of recognising his faults.
Maybe there’s something in that, and if so, it is entirely my fault. So I thought I would go back, look at Wenger, and all he has done, and try to put forward a better analysis of the view that I have of our manager.
In what follows I call him a practical philosopher, and it is a term that one can argue with – but it is where I inevitably find myself starting when I consider Wenger and his impact on football.
Arsène Wenger has never set himself up as a philosopher, but I see him as one because he has a vision of what football could be like; a vision based on a theory and experimented with in practical form on a daily basis.
At once this suggests that “philosopher” is too narrow a term for Wenger has gone much further than philosophers from Plato to Marx, as he has built a practical example of his philosophy of football in action. For that I admire him, more than I have admired anyone else in 50 plus years of watching football. To me he has gone far beyond the one previous philosopher we have had in the club: Herbert Chapman. Wenger is not just the most successful manager we have ever had – he is much more than that.
In fact I would argue that because of the rapidly changing nature of professional football in Europe he has not only evolved a complete theory of how a football club should be run, but he has done this not once but twice – changing the practical application of his philosophy as the world of football changed.
In this article, I am going to deal with part one of his work at Arsenal – the initial philosophy. In my next article I deal with how Wenger adjusted his views following changes in the footballing environment in which he works.
So, my argument is that it is the philosophy of Wenger which is of vital importance. If the club gets it right, when Wenger goes they will bring in a new manager who will continue to implement and experiment with the Wengerian philosophy, just as George Allison and Tom Whittaker did from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s taking the Chapman philosophy forward for some twenty years after the great man died in office.
And in summary, that’s my point. Wenger like Chapman had a philosophy which he laid down and then implemented, and then left for others to develop further. It is the only way that great reformers work, and Wenger is the greatest of all the reformers.
The initial theory
Wenger, upon arrival to the club considered a series of reforms that not only would benefit the club in theory, but would also be rapidly achievable in practice. His view in summary seems to me, from the outside, to be…
1. That players could be fitter and extend their useful playing careers if they changed their diet, their drinking, and to some degree their lifestyle.
2. That the traditional notion that foreign players could not bring huge benefits to English clubs was fundamentally mistaken. This old view was based on a completely false idea that there was a peculiarly English way of playing the game and that somehow foreigners were unsuited to it either because they didn’t have experience of playing the game that way, or because they simply couldn’t play the game the English way. English football remains different from much of European football – that is so – but there is no reason why it cannot be played by Europeans.
3. Because English clubs did not go after foreign players they often overlooked great talent overseas. What’s more, because English clubs searched the British leagues for players, the cost of those players was artificially inflated because there were many managers after them in the closed market of Britain. Foreign players of great talent were available at much lower cost however, if only one knew where to look.
4. While there was a benefit of bringing in established players, if one worked with younger players they would be brought up in the Wengerian way of thinking, and so would be better. This policy depended on being able to spot not just talent now, but talent in the future, and build it.
This policy thus led to the setting up of a new approach to youth football, in which a team would be recruited at around the age of 9 or 11 and melded into a team that would play the same way as the first team, and would eventually contribute significant numbers of players to the first team. (This might sound obvious, but it was not so in the 20th century, when the tendency was to bring in the best players you could find and work with them. This approach was much more clinical – involving a search for young lads already showing signs of playing the Arsenal way).
Then, as the group got to 16 years old (when players from other parts of the EU could be introduced) they would be brought into the mix if there was seen to be a shortfall in that area. Thus we would end up not with an exclusively English team but (because of the restrictions on bringing in schoolboy players from outside the local area) a mostly English team.
Further, once the process was started, it would run continuously. Of course one could not expect each year to be a spectacular year, but once the first bunch had begun to mature, then each year new players would come through.
Since raising a player at the club is far cheaper than buying him in, (and also more reliable since one can see how he develops according to the club’s methods, and can mould the player into the club’s ethos) this would ultimately make the club much more profitable than other clubs who were dependent in buying in players from lesser clubs.
5. The overall effect of this approach would be to win trophies and to get the club into the elite group of Europe among the clubs who qualified for the final stages of the competition year after year (where Arsenal had never been) and keep the club there through taking these points and playing a positive attack orientated style of football.
And it has worked, giving the club its most successful period in football in its 124 year history – keeping it in the top four of English clubs since 1998 – a record far in excess of anything achieved in the 1930s. Indeed I have not checked every detail but I think that in terms of appearing consistently in the top four, Arsenal is now the most successful club of all time in England. (If not, then we are one year away from that record).
This then was the basic philosophy. However as time progressed the world of football changed, most notably with the advent of a new phase with the Chelsea approach to the benefactor model of football finance – an approach which had such an impact that ultimately it led to the financial reforms that became introduced by UEFA in 2010.
In my second piece on the Wenger philosophy and approach to football I shall deal with Wenger’s response to the changes in football which arose as clubs became more aware of what he was doing, and came up with their own methods of handling Arsenal, and in some ways, trying to make money on the back of Arsenal’s approach.
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