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Pure Genius The Biography of the Premiership's Greatest Manager
By Tom Oldfield
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2010 Tom Oldfield
All rights reserved.
FROM PLAYER TO MANAGER
Arsène Wenger was born on 22 October 1949 in Strasbourg, France, to parents Alphonse and Louise. The family lived in the small village of Duttlenheim and Arsène grew up there along with older brother Guy. Duttlenheim's tiny population of 2,500 gave Wenger a quiet upbringing, away from the distractions of a big city. The Alsace region of France, in which Strasbourg is situated, offered a pleasant setting for family life and provided Arsène with a solid foundation for his future career.
Such is Wenger's current standing in world football, it is hard to believe that he was brought up in this sleepy village, rather than one of the bustling cities. But perhaps it worked in his favour. He had to work harder and had no choice but to aim higher. It gave him the urge to explore other areas and broaden his horizons. Visitors to Duttlenheim will find little to get excited about. Surrounded by agriculture, this rural setting is the polar opposite to the glamorous lifestyles of today's professional footballers. It is easy to see why the young Arsène would not have been overly influenced by the wealthy, celebrity circuit.
Wenger's father, Alphonse, ran an automobile parts business, called Comptoir de l'Est, as well as a local restaurant-cum-bar called La Croix d'Or. It was hoped that Arsène would follow in Alphonse's footsteps and take over Comptoir de l'Est in due course, but their son had other ideas. He had developed an interest in football that would increase year by year. Due to the size of the village, there was a distinct lack of organised local football and so Wenger had to wait before his first taste of team sport. Aged 12, he joined the village side and his path to the top in football began.
Football had a significant role in Alsace. Being on the border between France and Germany – and at one time a German province – the region took an interest in both leagues. However, it was the Bundesliga that held higher prestige and the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund caught Wenger's attention more than the French clubs. Arsène's favourite team as a boy was Borussia Monchengladbach and he admired the way that the German league was played with such pace and movement. Even at such a young age, he was taking note of these things. His early heroes included the great Franz Beckenbauer of Germany and Brazilian legend Pelé.
Learning more and more about the game, Wenger took a greater interest in the tactical side of football than most youngsters. His curiosity made him a serious young man rather than 'one of the lads' and his lifestyle was far from exuberant. He studied the strengths and weaknesses of teams and his mind absorbed football statistics and information like a sponge. At this stage, though, Arsène still dreamed of a long and distinguished playing career as he continued to represent the local village team and sought to progress towards playing for a professional club.
He certainly had talent. Max Hild, now a well respected coach and still a close friend of Wenger, first spotted Arsène's ability in a match between nearby villages. Wenger's Duttlenheim were playing AZ Mutzig – managed by Hild – and Arsène shone in a midfield role. As Hild told Jasper Rees: 'He was 18 and playing for his village. That was the first time I noticed him. He was a midfielder. He played very well. He made such an impression that I got in touch with him and the next year he came to play for Mutzig.' In years to come, Hild would prove to be a major influence on Wenger's path in football as he helped shape the Arsène who graces the Premiership today.
The influence of religion – namely Catholicism – in Alsace often had an impact on Wenger's football activities. As Arsène himself explains: 'The area I grew up in was steeped in religion. In those days you had to receive permission from the priest to play football because that meant missing vespers.' It would take more than this, though, to keep Arsène away from the pitch. As he has admitted, football has always been his primary focus.
Arsène's reputation as a player was growing steadily but his loyalties were divided between football and his studies. In this sense, he was far from a typical footballer. He was not throwing every ounce into the game because he had his education to consider too. This is not to say, however, that he lacked commitment. His childhood friends recall Arsène's tendency to shut himself away from all distractions in order to concentrate on achieving his aims. One claims that even now, if he phones Arsène, he has to make the conversation to bring Wenger out of his shell. The Frenchman was certainly willing to make the necessary sacrifices in life.
First, though, Wenger signed for Mulhouse, a semi-professional outfit with a proud, lengthy history. He would spend three years at the club as he furthered his football education. He was earning the equivalent of about £50 a week and he enjoyed the camaraderie within the dressing room. The team struggled, though, as they were constantly involved in relegation dogfights.
At the same time, Wenger was studying at Strasbourg University. He managed to combine the two different career paths and graduated with a degree in economics. This would prove very handy in years to come. Amongst all his other achievements, Arsène's appearances for the French university representative side have always gone rather unnoticed. The team travelled to various different destinations, with the highlight being a trip to Uruguay for a tournament in 1976. Injury kept Arsène on the sidelines throughout but the mere fact that he was included in the squad proves that Wenger was a young player with talent.
It was not an easy balance, however. Arsène did not live a typical student life as he found himself forever dividing his time between football and his studies. It was exhausting but it taught him to work efficiently under pressure. He had to make sacrifices in his social life as a result and certainly appeared reclusive due to the devotion with which he chased his goals.
Yet Xavier Rivoire refers to Wenger's days in the representative team in his biography on the Frenchman and includes a story from one of Arsène's friends and closest team-mates, Jean-Luc Arribart, which shows a different side of Wenger's character: 'What he did do was keep us all amused with a never-ending string of jokes. By the end of that trip, Arsène had almost taken on the role of assistant coach and team joker rolled into one. There was always another prank just around the corner.' It made Arsène a very popular member of the team and his colleagues certainly appreciated his selfless nature.
When Wenger decided that he needed a fresh challenge in football, he turned again to Max Hild, who was now coaching at AS Vauban. Hild's assurances were enough to convince Arsène to make the switch and Wenger looked forward to benefiting from more of his mentor's wisdom. It was an interesting decision because Vauban were a new club working their way up the leagues and it was certainly less prestigious. But, on the plus side, it meant that Arsène was closer to his home in Strasbourg. Vauban might not have hit the heights yet but there was plenty of promise for the future and Wenger wanted to be a part of it.
He did not really have a specialist position and this worked against him. Wenger had proven himself capable of performing solidly in defence or midfield and had never complained but at the same time he had not cemented his place in the team. To use a modern day parallel, Arsène was rather like Manchester United's John O'Shea in the sense that he was neither a Rio Ferdinand nor a Paul Scholes but could play those roles if required. The general consensus was that while Arsène could read the game well, his pace was limited and his distribution with his left foot was almost non-existent.
He did not stay long at Vauban but in his spell there he enjoyed the team's continued development. The club climbed further up the leagues and Wenger was proud to have been a part of the success. However, Hild had been the key factor in Arsène's move to Vauban and, when Strasbourg head-hunted the Vauban boss, things became more complicated. Hild, naturally, could not refuse the offer to join the set-up at Strasbourg but it left Wenger in a tricky situation. His motivation for staying at Vauban had suddenly disappeared.
As luck would have it, Strasbourg then came calling for Arsène. Hild had been appointed as reserve team manager but his expertise was often focused on the first team instead. The reserves needed a coach and Wenger's name was mentioned in conversations within the club, particularly by Hild, who knew Arsène was capable and hoped that the bond between the pair would help to tip the scales in favour of him accepting the proposition. Wenger became aware of the opportunity to work with the Strasbourg reserves and was left with the dilemma of whether to pursue his playing career or to begin to explore other avenues within football.
Whilst he consulted others regarding the matter, his eventual move to Strasbourg was very much his own decision. After all, he was only a semi-professional footballer and he saw no obvious route into making the sport a full-time career. Coaching, on the other hand, would give him a new challenge to tackle. Added to the persuasive case in favour of the change was Wenger's love for Strasbourg – his home city and his favourite French club as a child. How could anyone expect him to turn down this offer?
His responsibilities at Strasbourg were far from straightforward and, surprisingly, did not bring an end to his playing days. From time to time, Arsène would be called up to the senior squad and he was a regular in the reserves team, even though he was heavily involved in selecting and organising the troops. It gave him the chance to pit his tactical nous against that of other top bosses.
The meticulous manner in which he prepared for training and matches was an early indicator that he was cut out for the strains of management. No time was to be wasted idly. He might have shared few interests with the reserve team squad – mostly made up of youngsters – but he quickly earned everyone's respect for his unquestionable authority and professionalism. Rather than balancing football and his studies, Arsène now had football as his focal point yet this time he was combining playing with management. He still had little time to socialise or relax but he was happy.
In general, his time at the club was memorable and his achievements at Strasbourg gave him great pride. Hild used Wenger in the first team as a sweeper (or libero) and, despite scepticism from the press and a number of supporters, he had been an adequate replacement when senior players were unavailable. He just did not have the ability to hold down a regular place in the line-up.
Arsène was part of the Strasbourg side that won the French title in 1979, though his was very much a background role; he also tasted European football with the club when the team competed in the UEFA Cup. However, this foray into the elite of Europe was certainly a forgettable experience for Wenger. After missing the 0-0 home leg against Duisburg, Arsène was selected in central defence for the away leg in Germany and suffered the embarrassment of a 4-0 defeat – a major lowlight in his brief playing career to date. Then-manager Gilbert Gress recalled it as 'an absolute disaster'. The glory of the competition, though, was not lost on Wenger and he vowed to return to the European stage again.
The biggest problem for Wenger was that he had never truly fitted in at Strasbourg. His personality and character were alien to some of his team-mates and, though he remained popular, he was noticeably different from the other players. One particular incident illustrates the cultural and intellectual contrasts within the Strasbourg squad. In Myles Palmer's biography of Wenger, the Frenchman explains: 'When you are a professional footballer, you spend your holidays at Club Med. Me, I bought an air ticket to London. A friend advised me to go to Cambridge where I hired a bike and enrolled on a three-week English course. My team-mates thought I was mad.'
When his playing opportunities at Strasbourg continued to be limited, Arsène began to think about his future in the game. The general consensus was that Wenger was not good enough to be a professional, despite his application and versatility. His love for the game remained as strong as ever but the Frenchman had grown frustrated with the lack of first team chances.
He was enjoying his work with the reserves at Strasbourg and the idea of coaching as a full-time job started to take shape in his mind. He is not alone in falling short as a player and then turning to management as an alternative. Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, amongst others, had modest playing careers yet have enjoyed great success as managers. Perhaps this is the secret. Wenger reluctantly agreed when speaking to FourFourTwo: 'You have a bit of frustration from your career and that can help the motivation. I did not have complete recognition as a player and maybe I felt that could be forgotten.'
For years, Arsène had expected to choose between running the family business and being a professional footballer. Yet Wenger opted for neither as he committed himself to a career as a manager. His role at Strasbourg had shown him that he was ready. He made his final appearance for the senior side in 1979 and then set off on the journey towards a management post.
It was an opportunity for Wenger to stay in football and, having whetted his appetite with the Strasbourg reserves, he went on to study for a manager's diploma in Paris. The process began at the Regional Centre for Popular Sports Education (CREPS) as he collected the necessary qualifications for a coaching career. His fellow applicants could only marvel at Arsène's intensity and the devotion with which he approached the courses. He came out of the programme with plenty of new ideas and an even keener interest in finding the perfect match preparation. The mental side of the game intrigued Wenger, as did the study of isometrics. As Rivoire explains: 'He was fascinated by isometrics – the system of strengthening muscles and tuning up the body, whilst not necessarily changing a player's bulk.'
As Wenger later revealed, he had also taken a keen interest in plyometrics – a form of jumping training designed to improve power and mobility. As he revealed: 'The idea is to increase the explosive strength of the muscles. It makes the players stronger, more powerful, more agile. It involves all kinds of jumping, one leg, two legs, long jump, high jump. I try to get as near the game as possible in terms of intensity. I try to work the players in match conditions.' Such techniques were relatively untried in football and would certainly be revolutionary when Wenger employed them later in England. His work with psychiatrists and nutritionists was also hugely beneficial in future years.
Armed with this qualification, Arsène continued to impress at Strasbourg, where he took a central role in the youth set-up as well as coaching and playing for the reserves. By this stage, Wenger already possessed many of the vital managerial attributes. His ability to stay calm under pressure would prove very useful and his knowledge of the game was excellent – both in terms of tactics and players. He had always been a football man and the day-to-day running of a club appealed to his work ethic. His language skills – Arsène spoke German, French and English fluently and in addition could converse in Spanish and Portuguese – also made him a man in demand and allowed him to appeal to all sections of the assembled media. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that his profile grew and grew.
After impressing many with his knowledge and man-management skills at Strasbourg, he moved on to join the coaching set-up at AS Cannes, another French club. It was a sad moment for Wenger when he said farewell to Hild, bringing an end to his Strasbourg adventure, but he was excited for the future. The first-team coach at Cannes at the time was Jean-Marc Guillou, who Arsène knew well and respected, and the switch appealed greatly.
Excerpted from Arsene Wenger by Tom Oldfield. Copyright © 2010 Tom Oldfield. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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