Arsenal chief Arsene Wenger’s approachable style has netted exceptional
results. What could other businesses
achieve by adopting his, and other football managers’ goals
One manager in Britain, whose name is known in almost every household, is
quietly, almost stealthily, revolutionising the approach to personnel
management in his chosen field. And that field is football. His name is Arsene
Wenger, the Frenchman who, this May, led his side to a second League and FA Cup
double in four years and last week moved up to top position in the Premiership
Wenger has been managing Arsenal for almost six years and the traditional
football press still don’t know what to make of him. They have dubbed him ‘The
Professor’, a title which suggests their unease. To be likened to an academic
in the macho world of British football, is not exactly a compliment.
Yet, he has motivated and inspired a squad to play so far beyond their
capabilities, that they romped home to the title, even beating their old rivals
away at Old Trafford to clinch the trophy. And he did all this, apparently,
without raising his voice – a rarity in a game where coaches habitually confuse
volume with eloquence. So how does he do it?
The best way to answer the question was to meet the man, as I did at the
Arsenal training ground one Friday afternoon at the tail-end of last season.
His assistant, Pat Rice, an Arsenal veteran both as a player and coach, may
call him ‘boss’ as he passes by Wenger’s office to head home, but that, and the
kind of workaholism that seems endemic for those managing a big football club
these days, is pretty much where the resemblance to the stereotypical football
Born in Strasbourg in 1949, he was a decent footballer (though never capped
for France) who simultaneously acquired a degree in economics at Strasbourg
University. As a coach, he has managed teams in France, Japan and England, with
more than a modicum of success. The experience of managing different
nationalities – especially tough in Japan where he arrived without being able
to speak the language and had to inspire a relegation-threatened side – has
convinced him that the old adage that football is a simple game complicated by
the players isn’t quite true.
"It’s very easy for communication with a player, and between players
for that matter, to be superficial. But footballers want to feel they are
learning and they have to feel it in here," he says, pointing to his
heart, "that you understand them and want them to develop".
"If they feel deep down that you are only interested in them as a
number in the team, or to fit into a tactical system, they won’t be as happy
and may not play so well. I always tell my players to go out and express
He builds players like his striker Thierry Henry by cosseting them, rather
than cajoling or shouting them. He has a stack of videos of world-class players
in his office, a subtle reminder that they are not necessarily indispensable.
Wenger also keeps the game simple for the players, preferring not to change
his team’s formation, or style of play, whatever the opponent, instilling in
his side the belief that it is how they play thatmatters, not the calibre of
opposition. This is in sharp contrast to another foreign coach Claudio Ranieri,
who has been criticised for changing his system more than once during a game.
The liberating effect of this on some of the Arsenal players Wenger inherited
was soon apparent. Footballers such as Tony Adams, imprisoned in one zone of
the pitch and allowed out only for corners or set pieces, suddenly started
making forward runs.
Adams, who retired this summer and is thinking of emulating his mentor and
going to university, insists Wenger’s arrival added years to his career as a
player. Most of the hype about the Frenchman’s effect on players has focused on
his scientific approach to diet and training sessions but Adams says his new
boss also freed his mind, making his work more enjoyable.
At the same time, the changes Wenger introduced, such as new stretching
exercises at the start and end of every session, raised morale as players
realised they were benefiting physically. Probably one of the most underrated
factors in improving motivation is giving staff the feeling they have the right
tools to do the job.
Typically, he downplays talk of a scientific revolution at Arsenal.
"This was a big club already when I arrived and it did some things some
ways, I’ve just done some things differently."
His ‘express yourself’ approach seemed to backfire in the first half of last
season when the club started earning more publicity for the red cards it earned
– twice as many, over the same period, as Manchester United – than its style of
play, but the players then decided to reform.
The most conspicuous example of this was when midfielder and sometime
captain Patrick Vieira, who was sent off once and booked eight times before
Christmas last season in the Premier League, but booked only three times in the
second half of the League season. Wenger notes: "The players realised
keeping their discipline improved results."
Even when the club was getting the most stick, the players stuck together.
In contrast, when the wheels started coming off United’s season, captain Roy
Keane made a habit of berating his teammates (and, to be fair, often himself)
for a lack of desire, hunger or commitment. Ferguson has done the same,
dropping the euphemisms to suggest his team had become too secure having, in
many cases, just signed new contracts. This seemed to suggest the best way to
handle footballers is to keep them insecure, not an approach many employers in
other sectors would publicly espouse even if they privately practiced it.
For a time, Wenger was known as ‘Clouseau’, but the comparison to Peter
Sellers’ bungling French detective was, oddly, evidence of the players’
affection, rather than a lack of respect.
He is equally relaxed about the players’ relationships with each other. With
so many French players on his books, there is scope for the kind of cliques and
divisiveness which has marred the Dutch national side over the years but Wenger
says: "You can’t stop the French players wanting to talk to each other, or
see each other socially, you just have to trust them."
In person Wenger can seem relaxed, almost languid, polite yet slightly
detached, almost as if some other part of him is watching everything he’s
doing. His friend, Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier, admits: "I’ve never
seen him angry."
Yet he cares deeply about winning, so much that even as a fan, and then as a
player, he used to pray to God for victory. His differences with the United
boss have often been played up by the media but as he told the assembled
journalists on the day I met him: "The only thing that’s personal about
this is that we both want to win the same competition". Ferguson has, in
the past, psyched out opposing managers with his remarks to the press, but
Wenger rises above the jibes, a tactic his players have come to admire.
The need to win is, he insists, almost physically painful. When he started
out he didn’t know if he had the mental, emotional or physical toughness to
handle the pressure. "I worried I might not survive," he admits. The
examples of Houllier, hospitalised with a heart condition last season, Celtic’s
legendary coach Jock Stein, who died of a heart attack during a game in 1985,
and Joe Kinnear, the Wimbledon coach forced out of the game for 18 months by a
heart attack, all suggest the concept of work-life balance has yet to make an
impact in football management.
Wenger says: "This is a young man’s profession, a single man’s,
especially when you’re starting out. I have seen this business damage so many
families. Before, if someone rang me and asked me to go to Turkey I could go as
soon as I had packed my luggage." Having a wife and daughter has, he
admits, made moving about harder but also enabled him to switch off from the
During a season, though, he rarely has a whole day off, sneaking a couple of
hours here and there to read a book or to chat with his family. Only in the
summer does he completely escape – to France for a week with his family.
When he signed a new contract with his club last year, he made it clear he
understood the risks, saying: "Maybe I could leave two or three years
earlier than normal, who knows? If you question my sanity at taking this job
for another four years, you would be right to. It was a choice between a
passionate life or a quiet life. For me, that is no choice." He has no
thought of retirement, believing that he will just wake up one day and know
that it is time to do something else.
This season will be a crucial test for Wenger and, ultimately, for
football’s ability to bring its approach to personnel into the second half of
the 20th century at least. New managers can now study their profession
academically at Warwick University partly through the sponsorship of the League
Managers Association. One of the first students to pass the course was Wales’
manager and ex-Manchester United legend, Mark Hughes.
LMA head John Barnwell says the idea is to offer support to what he calls
"personality appointments" – coaches selected because they had a
great name as a player rather than for their track record in management or
technical qualifications. Yet the initiative seems well timed if the culture of
management in British football is going to change.
Wenger’s style paid off last season and already this summer – his stars want
to stay at the club. "When they feel they have stopped learning or
developing, that’s when a player is likely to go" is his simple credo. But
make no mistake, if Wenger doesn’t deliver the results next season, the media
will be insisting that the right way to manage footballers is for red-faced
blokes in sheepskin coats to treat them as bright children who just happen to
be too old to go to school. In other words, there’s more riding on this year’s
Premiership title race than football and pride.
Paul Simpson is the former editor of
How to achieve business goals
92 managers in the Football League but as with management in other businesses,
their approach to the job tends to fall into a few basic styles
The players do it his way. Can be a
sergeant major-type who bullies players verbally to impose their will or a
‘hard man’ who is quieter but tough and intimidates through looks and demeanour.
Pros They produce teams that
know their tactics well, are resilient, physically fit and disciplined.
Cons Dictators are not good
with difficult players because they find it hard to make an exception or bend
the rules for them. The act might also only work for a while. One of George
Graham’s problems as Arsenal boss was that after a few years, players had grown
accustomed to his tongue lashings and rather than being intimidated were just
Best examples in the game Sir
Alex Ferguson, George Graham, Kenny Dalglish, (it’s something to do with being
a Scottish manager).
Best example outside the game
Richard Desmond (Express Newspapers)
Shrewd, personable, lives on his wits
and/or hunches, often has a charismatic personality, a high media profile and a
good eye for the transfer market.
Pros Their profile and
personality can breed confidence and make their club more interesting to the
media than it might otherwise be. Their high profile takes pressure off players
which may help the team’s confidence, and players never grow complacent due to
the manager’s unpredictability.
Cons If a team is successful,
the players may feel too much attention is being focused on the manager.
Wheeler dealers often fail to put as much thought into preparation and
organisation as they ought to, sometimes seem to be lacking in long-term
Best example in the game Terry
Venables, now at Leeds United, a gifted tactician and an entertaining
personality who relates well to players. Yet Venables’ gifts are undermined by
the suspicion that he finds it hard to focus on the job in hand with the
intensity of, say, a Ferguson.
Best example outside the game
Full of theories, has read every new
management textbook that comes out, a computerised mind, obsessed by their
schedules and preparation which must be followed to the letter. Can sometimes
forget the players are human beings.
Pros The team is well prepared,
knows its job in detail, well-organised and up-to-date in terms of tactics and
Cons If things go wrong, the
manager may be reluctant to change his system, preferring to blame and/or
change the players. The players may also feel they can’t express themselves and
the detailed briefings can become oppressive.
Best examples in the game Don
Revie, whose dossiers on his opponents as Leeds United and England manager were
so thorough players felt exhausted after reading them. Fulham manager Jean
Tigana has shown a similar stubbornness in sticking to his preferred system of
play, irrespective of whether it suits the squad’s own abilities and styles.
Best example outside the game
Nice guys who want to build teamwork
through friendship and encourage players to express themselves.
Pros Team spirit is high if
things are going well, players feel free to experiment, communication between
players and manager is good, and players can respect the manager for having the
guts to be approachable.
Cons Democracy can seem like
weakness if results aren’t going to plan or there’s a serious issue which needs
to be handled – discipline, for example.
Best example in the game
Best example outside the game