At Bergkampesque we are lucky to have a life-long Gooner who lives in France and is fluent in both his mother tongue and English. Last week a big article about Arsene was published in L’Equipe, and LE GALL did us a mammoth favour by translating it in its entirety for us:
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : As you had to turn your coaching, as well as your personal, life into words, what were your feelings?
Arsène Wenger : At first, I felt bored, frustrated, because the past was blurred in my mind. As a coach, you always look ahead, you don’t look back much. That’s why I had to put in a real effort so I could see clearly what had happened in my life. And doing just that is like denying your future. This is not a comfortable mental process. At the beginning, I couldn’t see what might be interesting about telling the story of my life. But answering in the negative proved to be more and more difficult, and this was not an overbooked period for me either. So I did it, at least for my family. I thought to myself, that someday, someone might wonder: “What was the old chap up to, precisely?”
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : You tell the story of a coachless, tractorless, Alsatian childhood …
Arsène Wenger : Being without a tractor was more harmful to me, than being without a coach (laughs). In hindsight, it’s hard to picture out the life of someone who doesn’t have any coach until he turns 19, and who spends his whole life in football. Yet it did happen this way. I would play in my village. There were no floodlights for a long time, so we couldn’t train after nightfall. We would play on Sundays, after mass.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : You are attached to your land, yet you wanted to get away from it as soon as possible, didn’t you?
Arsène Wenger : I’ve been thinking about that quite often. My brother received the same education as I did, but he never left. Was it something I had inside me? I was curious. There is this thing I do not mention in the book: when I was 25, I went over to Hungary, with a friend of mine, in order to see for myself how things were working in the communist bloc, and I came home thinking it was about to collapse. Seeing the world was my plan,, and to this very day I’ve been asking myself the same question, as we have to face cultural differences that prove difficult to cope with for some: in football teams, racism has never been an issue, nor has cultural difference. Whereas in real life, and in the long run, cultural difference might prove more difficult to deal with than racism.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : In hindsight, what do you think you had which others didn’t, and which allowed you to have lived such a life?
Arsène Wenger : I don’t think I had anything more. I was lucky enough to have been born a passionate man, and to have come across people who put their trust in me, at various stages in my life. But I also had a genuine passion, which is still there today. When I get up in the morning, knowing a good game will be on at night, this is a special day for me.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : In an interview, you said that as a young footballer, you used to pretend you were a student in order to look more attractive, and that today, on the other hand, it would be the other way round …
Arsène Wenger : When I was young, athletes weren’t supposed to be very bright. We performed a miracle, when we brought intellectuals into sport, so much so that they no longer know whether we’re stupid or not (smiles). I, for one, was nicknamed “The Professor”, because I wore glasses, but the very definition of a coach is that he’s not just an intellectual: he has to think clearly, but more importantly he has to make his players buy into his ideas, he must prove his point, talk them into buying into the plan. Ideas alone aren’t enough.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : Why are you no longer a coach?
Arsène Wenger : Because somehow, the way I worked was one-of-a-kind, and there are no instances of it left, anywhere in the world. In England, it was difficult for me to go anywhere else, and I turned the offers down. At the same time, I was 70, wondering if I wasn’t going to put up one fight too many. Besides, I was made to feel like I was, sometimes. I had the example of Guy Roux in mind, somehow, he had left Auxerre after staying there for a very long time (in 2005, after 44 years in the club), and he hadn’t been too happy about it (in Lens).
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : By the way, Guy Roux once said that the energy of a coach was just another kind of libido, and that when its level started going down, it was time to quit …
Arsène Wenger : I hadn’t reached that stage yet, even though sometimes you may have, but are not aware of it. Today’s coaches do not have to do the things they can’t do. There are so many assistants! You can always delude yourself into thinking you make up for the physical strength you lost, through your improved anticipation of problems. You do have to be physically strong to be in that job, that’s a fact, but this was not the main reason: I hadn’t had a single break, and after an uninterrupted 36-year run on benches, I needed time to consider things. Obviously, my special relationship with Arsenal (from 1996 to 2018) made the move from one club to another more difficult. Today, I sometimes wonder whether I might have been wrong not taking Lyon over, when I was offered the job.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : Why did you turn Lyon down after you left Arsenal?
Arsène Wenger : I wasn’t ready. I felt it was too early to jump back in. I was still mourning. I talked to Sylvinho (who was coaching Lyon in autumn 2019) – he gave me a call lately. His experience in Lyon harmed him, because he’s a sensitive guy.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : It’s been two years since you quit. How do you feel: free, or regretful?
Arsène Wenger : Free. I was in this job so long. And I wasn’t committed 50%. 24/7, that’s all I was doing. Therefore, I can enjoy a form of freedom.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : Is freedom as good as you expected it to be, or not as good, even slightly?
Arsène Wenger : Not feeling the pressure of time is good. No longer having specific aims is not as good, not at all. It’s tough, this. What is definitely not as good, is having broken up with the club where I laid every single brick. All of a sudden, you get up in the morning, you feel like going to the training centre, but you can’t, it’s over. When you’re the one who purchased the ground, picked the spoons and forks, it isn’t easy.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : Your discretion is like a veil hiding your last day at Arsenal from us.
Arsène Wenger : That day … I had taught myself to hold my emotions back. Twenty years of your life gone, vanished. Everything I had learned as a coach allowed me to get out of this moment alive, to keep my emotions under control. When I started being a coach, I was in so much physical pain, that I thought I would never be able to make it in that job. I learned how to keep myself under control. So, this very day, the day I was leaving, I wanted to be up to it. I didn’t want to break down, I wanted to show I was in control. But the aftermath was tough. Arsenal was my home. And being shut out from home overnight isn’t easy. When I went back in to pick up my things the week before our last away game to Huddersfield (W 1-0), I was alone. Ever since that day, I haven’t gone back to the Emirates, nor to Colney. This is an actual breakup, in the sentimental sense.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : Is getting over it even possible?
Arsène Wenger : Time’s a healer, a good one, but my love for the club hasn’t vanished. Nor has the pain, not completely. The feeling of withdrawal’s still there too. Max Hild, who gave me a leg up when I was in Strasburg, , told me once that when he had stopped coaching, it took him two years to get over it. That’s about what it normally takes. I try to live with that feeling of withdrawal, rather than expecting it to go. As a matter of fact, I have difficulty saying a final no when I’m called upon, giving up being part of that world. I need to keep being an option. I can’t say it’s over, not yet. But having said that, the further away it gets, the more difficult it is to come back.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : What would be the right way to come back to Arsenal? How will you pick the right day?
Arsène Wenger : Take a leisurely stroll to the game. I’ve often been asked to go back. But I think the club is going through a reshuffling period, former players of mine are taking things under control. You have to wait and see. Right now, I’m not ready.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : What would be the right way to make it back to the world of football?
Arsène Wenger : I’m not out, I’m 100%% into it. But I’m no longer 100% into getting results. If I should make it back to the pitch, I think it’d be around a national team. But this is no longer my obsession, I experience football differently, not as a spearhead week in, week out, anymore. If I was itching to do it again, the national team path would the shortest, and wisest. I gave my all to club football, and since I am a long-term kind of guy, it will get more and more difficult for me. The next 22 years are bound to be tougher (laughs).
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : In the book, you give the three keys to assessing a player: first touch, making a decision, turning this decision into action. Is it still your way of watching games?
Arsène Wenger : Let’s talk about the Bayern-PSG final; I found, for instance, that the Bayern players’ decision-making level had been consistent throughout. As had the way they made themselves available again in no time, when they had to retrieve the ball; they kept wanting the ball, even they were 1-0 up. Not taking the scoresheet under consideration when you have to make a decision is vital in top-level football. But when I watch a player, I try to see how clever he is whenever he makes a decision.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : You also quote the number of times top-level players look around to collect information before getting the ball, as opposed to average players …
Arsène Wenger : There’s the difference. The number of times a player looks around before. You can see it, because he has an available solution, right away. We all know we have to collect information, but what was interesting in that survey of mine, was the number of times he looks around before getting the ball. A top-class player does it six to eight times, a good player four to six. But sometimes, in some games, I showed FIFA instances of great players who couldn’t keep their eyes off the ball.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : In the book, you explain how lonely a coach may feel. Now that you no longer coach, do you feel less lonely, or a bit more?
Arsène Wenger : Sometimes, I do feel more lonely, because I no longer share anything urgent, important, on a daily basis. But I am not as lonely as I used to, in my social life, my family life, because I have more moments to share. But there are more moments of loneliness, and they last longer. This change in my life is hard to cope with. At Arsenal, whenever I turned up, three guys were already there, waiting for me. Now, I got nothing.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : Was the difficulty you had getting over defeats, one of your reasons for quitting?
Arsène Wenger : Not succeeding in making the club go forward at European level is tough. But I keep cursing our unlucky draws, Barça, Barça, Barça, and then Bayern, Bayern. Only once did we not pick one of them, we got Monaco and we were tricked out, like a bunch of idiots (2015). Even though Monaco were a good team, back then. Draws do matter, as we saw with PSG in Champions’ League this season. The Paris guys may have regrets, but I think they overestimated what they did in their semi-final against Leipzig.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : So, defeats …
Arsène Wenger : Each and every one of them is like a scar carved across my heart. We all stand halfway between our love of victory and our hatred of defeat. But I couldn’t stand losing, not at all. I can tell how things turned out, the guy who didn’t put his foot in, the other guy who didn’t pick the right spot when a cross came in, the keeper who should’ve caught it … You could go insane! That was the main characteristic of my career, the harm losing did to me. That’s also one of the reasons why I haven’t jumped back in. I have no doubt it takes a toll on our health. After giving a goal away, I sometimes felt like my arteries were getting clogged. My final record is 58% wins, 20% draws, 20% losses: losing one in five games is tough enough. But I think of the guy who wins one in five!
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : In the book, you don’t name names; out of contempt, or out of grudge?
Arsène Wenger : Neither. But it’d rather be out of contempt (smiles). What this book, this life, have left me with, is that with a bit of luck, we can live a life that outshines the one we had figured out, and also that there might be an interest in sharing what you’ve been taught. That humans could do much better, but also that they can surprise you in a positive way. Enmities and pettiness are not what I’m left with.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : Nevertheless, you skim over the part of your record that was stolen from you, don’t you?
Arsène Wenger : Yes, I do. But what can I do about it, today?
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : Telling or not telling, you had a choice.
Arsène Wenger : I could tell, but how could I prove it? Moreover, most of the players who were involved back then are going through very hard times now … At the end of the day, it’s up to each and everyone of us to live up to their own values. It can turn out well, or not so well, but there is no other path in life you can tread on. We’d better not dwell on the backstabbers, otherwise we might end up cutting frustrated, angry figures.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : You were a coach thirty-six years, how many of them found you a happy man?
Arsène Wenger : Overall, I was truly happy to be in that job. But the moments of extreme joy are few, 2 or 3%. Searing intensity’s a rare thing. You feel joyful on a winning night. If happiness is loving the life you live, I’ve been a happy man. Moments of joy are something different. But I happened to be there at training sessions when the team started playing at an unbelievable level, and then I thought to myself I’d be willing to pay to see this. Now that I know about life outside football, should I be born again tomorrow, I’d be a coach again, and for forty years just the same.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : One of the last sentences of the book is: “I’m pretty sure there is no such thing as a fulfilled life”. What is it that you’ve left unfinished?
Arsène Wenger : There are many things I haven’t won as many times as I wanted to, and others I haven’t won at all, but also many things I’ve neglected, my family in particular. All lives are cut short, that’s the very definition of it, you just can’t achieve everything.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : You turned down Real, Bayern, PSG, in particular, France as well. Do you wish you hadn’t?
Arsène Wenger : Yes, I do, somehow. They were great clubs. Jean-Claude Blanc insisted I should go to Juve, too. I feel regret, but at the same time, I take pride in having served my club to the very end, in carrying the project through. To me, this goes beyond winning any title. I’m the longest-serving Monaco coach, I stayed there seven years. I was made for this kind of loyalty. I’m also the kind of guy who has a built-in motivation. I am always keen on improving myself, and people like me want to do their job their own way. I‘m not sure I could have done this in Madrid.
Vincent Duluc (« L’Équipe ») : Was it difficult to talk about yourself, in this book?
Arsène Wenger : Yes, it was, very difficult. I don’t like it. I am a discreet person. I belong in a generation of people who didn’t talk about themselves. It was a kind of torture. I’ve never been outspoken in the media, nor have I been written about in papers, for other reasons than being a coach. That was tough. But writing this book was also my way of saying: my coaching years are over. That’s why I refused to do it before. Getting old is no weakling business (smiles)
By LE GALL