Reviewing John Cross's 'Arsene Wenger: The Inside Story of Arsenal Under Wenger'
When quizzed about a transfer saga or a player who has slipped through Arsenal’s fingers, Arsène Wenger often replies that he will be able to tell the full story one distant day following his retirement. Until such time, Arsenal fan’s and football followers in general will have to rely on second hand accounts to find out more about Arsène Wenger the man, as well as his methods as a manager. Daily Mirror journalist John Cross, who has trod the Arsenal beat for the entirety of Wenger’s reign, tries to uncover both aspects of Wenger in his newly released book Arsène Wenger: The Inside Story of Arsenal Under Wenger.
He is not the first to attempt to paint such as portrait, but the advantage Cross possesses over other writers is the fact he has dealt with Wenger on an almost weekly basis for 19 years, both on and off the record. He also has unrivalled access to former players, colleagues and close friends and it is through the anecdotes provided by such sources that the book gains strength. The book could easily have turned into a list of scorelines, league positions and financial results but due to such anecdotes and personal perspectives is a very entertaining read. Most people who have read the book seem to have the same experience that they flew through its pages quite quickly.
The book follows a more or less chronological structure, though there are some thematic chapters such as ‘Old Foes’ which covers Wenger’s relationships with other managers, ‘Press Relations’, ‘Fan Unrest’ and ‘Training and Tactics’. The book begins with the famed tale of Arsene Wenger’s arrival at the club, greeted with the Evening Standard sandwich board that asked ‘Arsene Who?’ and his immediate alterations to the players’ diets and training regimes. Nigel Winterburn, Ray Parlour and Stephen Hughes provide the colour and detail to such changes. Highlights include the banning of carbonated water because it was believed to restrict oxygen flow, having to finish the protein on your plate before eating the carbs and peppering plastic mats across hotel ballrooms for stretching on the morning of games.
A feature of this early period that is forgotten now I believe, was the scepticism and at times outright hostility that greeted him when he arrived in England. By their own admission, this applied to some of the Arsenal squad and none more so than Captain Tony Adams. Alex Ferguson proclaimed that Wenger should ‘keep his opinions to Japanese football’, a remark so crass that no manager would dream of saying such a thing today, even off the record. There were newspaper columns arguing that a foreign manager could never win the championship in England. Winning the double in his first full season, 1997/98, was Wenger’s emphatic riposte. In fairness to Ferguson, his hostility was always a positive sign for Arsenal and Wenger. It showed that he recognised them as a legitimate treat to United’s dominance. Perhaps the ultimate humiliation for Wenger was when he received public sympathy from his old rival following Arsenal’s 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford in 2011.
The first half of Arsenal Wenger’s reign is in many ways the easiest period of his tenure to analyse, with almost all commentators agreed that it was an unqualified success and Cross agrees. Three Premiership titles, Four FA Cups, which included two Doubles and the historic unbeaten season of 2003/4 as well as the club’s first appearance in a Champions League final in 2006. The absence of a Champions League and of back to back League title wins is the only black mark against Wenger’s work in this era.
However, it is in the period from 2006 to present where Cross had to tread more carefully in order to strike a balance between criticism and giving credit where it is due. The debates in this section of the book are still very raw and divide Arsenal fans to this day. Whether you believe that Cross has found the right tone in this section will depend on your own opinions of the job Wenger has done. The key debate surrounding Arsenal in this period is the extent to which Wenger was financially restricted in the transfer market or whether he decided against spending all of the money that was available.
One of Cross’ key revelations was that financially, the most difficult times for Arsenal were actually in the few years before the stadium move as the club tried to secure loans. In fact, in the middle of the unbeaten season of 2003/4, Arsenal came within a week of not being able to pay the players’ wages. Only the procurement of a property deal gave the club a much needed cash injection. To think the likes of Theirry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp were that close to being salary-less is an incredible state of affairs, and to make matters worse they were well aware of this fact.
The tentative conclusion that Cross comes to on this point, is that once Arsenal were settled in the new stadium there was surplus cash available to invest more heavily than Wenger chose to. However, he also acknowledges that this cash did not have the market value it once did because of the new regimes at Chelsea and Manchester City and the way in which their all but unlimited budgets saw prices and wages sky rocket. A budget of £20 to £25 million pounds could get you Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord in the summer of 2000 but wouldn’t buy you players of that calibre in 2010.
Cross acknowledges that keeping the club in the Champions League every season in the period between 2005 and 2013 was an achievement worth noting. It may have been a caveated form of success, but it was by no means unqualified failure. Arsenal’s best players grew impatient and left the club in search of silverware and the club were unable to land key targets such as Juan Mata and Eden Hazard for financial reasons, instead having to shop at the ‘Gervinho’ end of the market. Cross also describes how this period almost took its toll on Wenger on a personal level; he cut down severely on his interaction with the press and Cross describes him as looking visibly drawn and ashen faced at times. The author’s respect and personal admiration of Wenger is obvious throughout and it is apparent that Cross genuinely sympathised with Wenger’s torment.
However, Cross provides enough information to give Wenger’s critics ammunition should they choose to look for it. Implied in his coverage of the trophy laden Highbury years is the vital role played by David Dein, and it is clear that Cross believes that his departure from the board was a real loss for Wenger. It is a familiar story to Arsenal fans. Wenger would give Dein a list of players he was interested in and Dein used his contacts and negotiating skills to secure deals, telling Wenger not to worry himself too much with the financial minutiae of deals. Though Wenger has a good relationship with current transfer fixer Dick Law, there were years when Wenger seemed too involved in the transfer negotiations.
Cross also reveals that many agents as well as members of Arsenal’s scouting system have become frustrated at perceived indecision from Arsene Wenger when it comes to player recruitment. There have been a few late U-turns, closely linked to Wenger’s personal valuations of players which one source compared to forensically dismantling a Cartier watch to prove it was only worth £1,500 rather than £2,000.
Another source claims that although Wenger is a ‘great, great manger’ he is not a particularly good ‘strategist’. The reason for this, it is argued, is that Wenger is not very adept at delegating tasks and is too concerned with the smallest of details to see the bigger picture. Therefore Wenger doesn’t address issues such as starting a season with only six defenders, as was the case in 2014/15. The appointment of Shad Forsythe to the fitness department and Andries Jonker to the youth department are signs he may be changing.
One player told an international teammate that at his previous club, one of the biggest in Europe, a few hours would be spent analysing video footage of opponents while at Arsenal around 20 minutes would be spent. This hints at a well-worn criticism of Wenger that he has too much faith in the strengths of his own players and doesn’t pay enough attention to tactics or the strengths of the opponent. As Cross rightly says though, how likely is it that a manager would survive at the top for 30 years and achieve all that Wenger has without at least some appreciation of the tactical side of the game?
The truth is that Wenger almost never discusses tactics publicly, never mind explicitly. That is why books such as this one are so important and enlightening. Managers such as Rafa Benitez, Louis Van Gaal, Brendan Rodgers and at times Jose Mourinho are fond of talking at length about the tactical adjustments and in-game changes that enabled their team to win a game. Arsene Wenger doesn’t do that. Though he places a great deal of responsibility on his players to find solutions themselves, he never deflects any praise away from them towards himself in victorious moments. That isn’t a criticism of other managers, but rather an explanation of why Wenger can seem like a tactical void.
He doesn’t speak about how he played Aaron Ramsey on the right against Liverpool in March in order to have a player pressing each of Liverpool’s three centre-backs. He doesn’t talk about the way in which Arsenal sat off Cesc Fabregas in the Community Shield and looked to block passing avenues rather than man mark him as they did in the defeat at Stamford Bridge last season. He doesn’t talk about the way in which he prefers one offensive full back, usually the left back though not currently, and one more robust and conservative full back.
Arsene Wenger is fiercely private regarding both his personal and working life and that is why he is a fascinating subject. John Cross has produced a balanced analysis of a manager who provokes quite extreme responses. The positive aspects are a man who is almost too intelligent to be working in football, who can be charming and good company, who is unwaveringly loyal, an outstanding man manager who instils fantastic levels of confidence into young players and who always has the best interests of the club at heart. Anyone who finishes this book without reaching the conclusion that Arsene Wenger has ultimately been a force for good at Arsenal Football Club, should seriously question their motives.
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