Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Indomitable Spirit

"I believe a big club must have the ambition to win with style ... You know, there is a famous saying, that the only way to deal with your life is to transform it into art, every minute of your life. Football is an art, like dancing is an art – but only when it's well done does it become an art. If you see me painting, that is not an art. If you see my wife painting, that is art." ~ Arsene Wenger

When Wenger arrived at Arsenal in the autumn of 1996 as one of the first foreign managers in the English game, he was, inevitably, received with suspicion and bewilderment. Who was this Frenchman with the German name, from the contested eastern borderlands of Alsace, and what was he doing at Arsenal of all places?
Today, He is the club's longest serving manager and most successful, winning eleven major honours since 1996. Wenger also has the enviable record of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League in every season (full) since his arrival. In short, he has never fallen short of a top-four finish since ’96. And yet, at the beginning of every season, his critics bay for his blood.

For the first part of his tenure at Arsenal, he built a foundation on defensive strategies. Arsenal won enough trophies, and the manager rightly invested in the youth team (to an extent that some former players termed it “child trafficking”). With younger players coming through, the formation changed to an attacking setup. Over the last couple of years, Arsenal’s style of football has seen a transformation. They are dependent on their pacy wingers, and play direct football. On the negative side, their defensive mechanism has failed them in the past few seasons and they have conceded far too many goals. But, alike the Brazilian team of the past, the ultimate motive in football is to score more goals than your opponent. Although their mainstay players have their headed towards greener pastures, Wenger has managed to rebuild the team at the beginning of every season and drive them towards challenging the better teams in the league.

At the beginning of last season, most Gooners (Arsenal fans including yours truly) were devastated. Two of our iconic stars (Fabregas and Nasri) had decided to move on to better clubs. But, at the end of the season when we finished above Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool (all of them had spent a sizeable amount of money), Wenger proved everyone wrong. He gave the fans the belief that great teams were not built only on the capability of their stars. It was a summation of the team’s efforts. And if the superstars left, someone else would step up to fill their shoes. Eventually, the show must go on.

A survey in 2007 found that Wenger was the only Premier League manager to have made a profit on transfers, and Wenger made an average profit of £4.4 million per season on transfers, far more than any other club. In 1997, he bought Anelka from PSG for a paltry 500,000 pounds and sold him two years later for 23 million pounds. It gave Wenger the money to buy three others: Henry, Pirès, and Wiltord (all of them played significant roles for Arsenal).

Wenger’s philosophy has been simple. No player is bigger than the club (a reason why Arsenal’s wage structure has always been concrete). Wenger has always backed his players, be it injury, criticism or off-color displays. And most importantly, it isn’t the price tag of a player that worries Wenger, rather the value for money that’s linked to that player.

Wenger speaks good English, with a slightly comical accent, has a degree in economics (evident from the way he makes purchases in the transfer market) from Strasbourg University, and, with his interest in sports science, nutrition and physiotherapy, has progressive ideas on how a modern football club should be run and how its players should eat, train and rest. In this age of Moneyball (the film by the same name could have portrayed Wenger for all reason), where billionaires from the Arab nations and the Eastern-Bloc have invested in football teams, Wenger is an old-fashioned tyrannosaurus. His methods might not go well with the new teams of football (the Manchester City’s and Chelsea’s of the world) who prefer to spend at least 100 million pounds every season to win something half the worth. As a manager, (in my view) only Sir Alex is on par with Wenger for building teams and retaining the legacy of their respective clubs.

The essential mystery that surrounds Wenger - the enigmatic and fascination of him - is heightened by his refusal to play the media game or embrace celebrity. While he is always available for press conferences, he never gives long interviews or speaks candidly about personal matters or issues outside football. This is a shame because it means we shall never know him as he really is. Nor is Wenger popular among his fellow managers, who complain about his aloofness. Alex Ferguson once spoke with irritation of how Wenger would never join him for a post-match drink, a cherished tradition at Old Trafford. Yet he is adored by his players, to whom he is unstintingly loyal, never criticising them in public. Arsène Wenger has effected a glorious revolution in England, showing the footballing community not only how the game can and should be played, but also how young men of different races, religions and nationalities can work together harmoniously to create a moral example and vision of the cosmopolitan good life.

“At a young age winning is not the most important thing... the important thing is to develop creative and skilled players with good confidence.” – Arsene Wenger.

P.S – RVP’s departure was always on the cards. For a player who occupied the treatment table for the majority of his stay at Arsenal (most part of his first 6 seasons), and had a reputed in-disciplinary record at the beginning of his career; he has only Wenger to thank for turning his fortunes around. But, Arsene has had the last laugh. Having spent only 2.75 million pounds to buy RVP, he is going to sell him for at least 10 times that amount.

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