Under George Graham, Arsenal played exciting football in the late 80s and the early 90s, but became increasingly defense-minded and began to depend solely on goals from Ian Wright for 3 point-hauls. Consequentially, Arsenal performed extremely well in the cup competitions due to the safety-first-and-then-lump-it-to-Wright tactics. Then the FA banned Graham after he confessed to having accepted a bung payment. Bruce Ricoh was appointed caretaker manager and Arsenal finished 12th that season, in 1994-95. Ricoh guided the team to 5th in the following season but fell out with the board over availability of transfer funds and was dismissed. Enter Arsene Wenger who was greeted with the headline “Arsene Who?”
Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, and Arsene Wenger are shining examples of managerial excellence in the Premier League. They have consistently delivered results, nurtured players to achieve their best, and raised the standing of their clubs. Few players have gone on to do greater things after leaving either of these clubs. However, in my humble opinion, Arsene Wenger is the best manager in English football.
At this link, a much-followed writer on the respected Inc.com lists 8 core traits of extraordinary bosses. Management, in its general sense, calls upon quite common skills across diverse fields. Managing a Fortune 500 company and managing a football club definitely have a few common imperatives of success. I shall try to draw upon a few of those imperatives and explain why I believe “Le Boss” bosses those as well.
“Average bosses want employees to do exactly what they’re told. Extraordinary bosses set a general direction and then commit themselves to obtaining the resources that their employees need to get the job done.”
Wenger single-mindedly advocates one philosophy: of beautiful, attacking football. He moulds his teams with this overarching attitude and empowers his players to develop that attitude. Arsenal’s youth teams are extensively coached to be comfortable on the ball, to welcome the ball and cherish possession. The first team does a whole lot more work with the ball than off it or in the gym. Those that castigate Wenger for his “tactical naïvety” sadly miss this point, in my humble opinion. Tactically naïve managers get their teams relegated, like Steve Kean.
“Average bosses see employees as inferior, immature beings who simply can’t be trusted if not overseen by a patriarchal management. Extraordinary bosses treat every employee as if he or she were the most important person in the firm.”
Wenger lays down rules for his players, yes. However, Wenger trusts his players to behave as adults, as they are and he treats young players extraordinarily well. Every player that plays or has played for Arsenal refers to Wenger as a father figure. Every player that left Arsenal in search of greener pastures has mostly regretted it; even players that left on slightly sour notes. Prominent examples are Hleb, Cazorla, and Fabregas.
“Average bosses see fear—of getting fired, of ridicule, of loss of privilege—as a crucial way to motivate people. Extraordinary bosses inspire people to see a better future and how they’ll be a part of it.”
Brendan Rodgers did this right before Liverpool’s first game of the season. It’s fair to say that his little mind game backfired quite spectacularly. That Fergie did it is a lazy excuse; Sir Alex Ferguson did it in completely different circumstances wherein he was trying to keep his squad’s ego in check—they’d just won the title. Brendan Rodgers did it in his first season right before the first game, and Liverpool haven’t ever looked solid till date this season. He has time to mend his ways.
Allow me to add my two cents too.
In whichever way we define the success of a football club—Cup wins, Champions League trophy, financial success—it is undeniable that football is a business. A football club has a number of expenses to service, thus needs viable and sustainable revenue streams, while also needing to make profits in order to ensure the long-term safety of the club. Criticizing a club for being financially responsible is quite shortsighted, especially considering the precarious financial situation of most European nations at the moment. That Arsenal, along with a few other football clubs, is consistently profitable in a time when government bonds are being degraded to junk status is nothing to feel ashamed about. This, I firmly believe, would never have happened without Arsene Wenger’s foresight and single-minded dedication to safeguarding Arsenal’s long-term safety.
Which brings me to my next point: a responsible employee always tries to leave a place better than when he first entered it. This cuts to the heart of an individual’s social responsibility to his immediate community, i.e., Arsenal Football Club in Arsene Wenger’s case. Fans are emotionally invested in their football clubs and to not respect their commitment is plain footballing blasphemy in my opinion, pretty strong this time. We all feel for fans of Leeds United, Portsmouth, Luton Town, among others that have suffered heartbreaking relegations due to financial indiscipline; Luton Town, one of the first clubs to turn professional, has dropped as low the Conference.
Football is indeed a results business, I completely agree. Trophies are important; it is pretty much the only returns that the fans see on their emotional investment. However, to prioritize results over the club’s footballing philosophy is a self-defeating exercise. When the brown stuff hits the fan, the best backup plan for a football club is to fall back on the footballing attitude it has developed for itself, be it tiki-taka or route one football. Mourinho is an extremely result-oriented manager—more power to him—but Inter Milan has struggled ever since he left. Chelsea survived after Mourinho due to the indulgence of their owner and Real Madrid’s heritage makes it inconceivable for them to suffer a post-Mourinho hangover.
Inter have a sugar daddy but still suffered after Mourinho. The Boot Room philosophy of Liverpool in the 60s and 70s is a perfect example. After Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley (who played all his career at Liverpool FC and then joined the backroom staff as a physio) took over and arguably achieved greater results. After Paisley, it was Joe Fagan who was also a part of The Boot Room. After Fagan, it was Kenny Dalglish, a Liverpool man through and through. These managers without doubt delivered the greatest era in Liverpool’s history.
I believe this is what Arsenal is also trying to achieve at the club with the appointment of Steven Bould as assistant manager from his position as youth coach. Remember that Tony Adams tried to talk his way into the assistant manager’s post at Pat Rice’s retirement—he has been making completely unhelpful statements about Arsenal since, which I shall ignore out of respect, albeit gradually eroding, for his efforts as a player for Arsenal.
There you have it. I deeply respect Arsene Wenger as a football manager and as a man, and I’d love to hear your views.