Arsene Wenger has signed a new two-year contract to remain as Arsenal manager, the FA Cup winners have announced.
Speculation over the Frenchman's future has been rife in recent months but despite a backdrop of supporter unrest, he has now committed to the club with a fresh deal that will extend his reign to almost 23 years.
You have been manager of Arsenal over 8000 days. That’s as many days as all the current Premier League managers put together.
AW: Really? And how many seconds is that if you’re so good at maths (laughs)?
Easy: 8000 x 24 x 3600!
AW: For me it doesn’t represent anything except doing a job that is exclusively turned to the future. Towards the next day. I always live in the future. It’s planned. Tight. My relationship with time is filled with anxiety. I’m always fighting against it. That’s why I ignore what’s in the past.
Earlier on, while you were getting dressed for the photo shoot, I was reminded of a quote by Mircea Lucescu, the Shakhtar Donetsk manager, about you: “Arsène is an aristocrat. He is not driven by the working class values of an Alex Ferguson or the aggressive nature of a José Mourinho. He tries to educate above all”. Do you recognise yourself in that description?
AW: I don’t deny that I’m first and foremost an educator. However, I don’t feel like an aristocrat at all. If you had lived with me, loading manure on carts, you would have understood. I try to be faithful to the values that I believe to be important in life and to pass them on to others.
Aristocracy can be a state of mind; it’s not necessarily inherited.
AW: I don’t deny what others feel, but feel like a kid from Duttlenheim who went running in the fields every day. Aristocrats had their heads cut off in France. I strive to pass on values. Not the right of blood. A civilisation that does not honour its dead or its values is doomed.
Precisely, you’re in England, and you didn’t keep your farmer’s outfit. You’re always impeccable on the bench on game day.
AW: Because I feel responsible for the image that football has, and the image that I want to give of my club. And also, football is a celebration. And where I come from, we dressed up on Sundays. I loved arriving in England and seeing the managers wearing suits and ties.
Spending a good day at the Emirates doesn’t have very much to do with a good day at Highbury does it?
AW: The expectation has risen. The philosophical definition of happiness is a match between what you want and what you have. And what you want changes as soon as you’ve got it. Always more. Always better. Hence the difficulty to satisfy. An Arsenal fan, when you finish fourth, will say, “Hey, we’ve been in the top four for twenty years. We want to win the league!” They don’t care that Manchester City or Chelsea have spent 300 or 400 million euros. They just want to beat them. But if you finish fifteenth two years running, they will be happy if you finish fourth after that.
You insist on fair play, are you a real Englishman in that sense?
AW: I haven’t always been fair play. In each and every one of use there is the desire to win and hatred for defeat. It was very difficult for me to be fair because of my aversion for defeat. Speaking of which, I still am the only manager to have won the league without losing a single game. But the English have something more when it comes to fair play. Look at the rugby team, knocked out in the group stages at home and they clapped the Australians off the field. That deserves respect! You know how much they suffer. How they are humiliated. It’s good for the image of sport.
In what way have you become English?
AW: It’s the country of the heart. It is not afraid of emotion. In English, people will say “I love it!” We pollute our emotions because of our Cartesian spirit. We don’t know how to love without limits. We like PSG, but… The English know how to lose themselves in emotions.
Educating rather than coaching?
AW: I don’t want the will to educate to be opposed to the will to win. That makes the educator sound like an idiot. Any manager’s approach must be to educate. One of the beauties of our job is the power to influence the course of a man’s life in a positive way.
And when, during a game, you’re confronted by an opposing manager for whom only the result matters, and not the means…
AW: I’ve been called naïve on that level. In any case, there’s only one way to live your life. You have to conform to the values you believe to be important. If I don’t respect them, I would be unhappy. And in any case, I’ve always been a man who was completely committed to the cause. With my good and my bad sides.
If you had to pick one moment in your career?
AW: Arriving in London with complete scepticism. My first league title, my first double. Going from “Arsène Who?” to the one who became a pioneer. Being the first non-British coach to succeed in England.
And if there was a pain?
AW: Being questioned on everything that has been done after every single loss, despite the consistency we’ve put in our work at the highest level. The immediate “chuck it all out” reaction. You have to find a balance between your masochistic capability to endure what you’re being put through and the pleasure of accomplishment. Today, my masochistic capability must be bigger so as to express my passion. I’ve reached that point. I do many things that make me suffer.
Is that why you stay away from the media?
AW: Of course. Do you know someone who wakes up in the morning and says: Hey, I’d like to get fifty whiplashes.
You say you’ve been described as naive. Do you not prefer to be called an idealist?
AW: A guy said: “There is only one way to live with the idea of death, it is to try and transform the present into art”. That works with what we’ve just been talking about.
Does the fact that you were a professional footballer, but not a great player, give you more leniency, patience regarding what your team can accomplish?
AW: You can explain that by the relationship with frustration of a player who didn’t reach what he was striving for. Anything could have happened, however my career would have panned out, I would have stayed in football. Football was obviousness to me. A bit of a crazy obviousness. Sometimes, when I was 24-25 years old I thought: shit if I can’t play football anymore I’ll commit suicide! I was thinking: what is the point of life after it?
AW: Seriously. I tried for a long time to understand how you could be that stupid. Simply because I was raised in a bar-restaurant that was the HQ of a football club. We only spoke about football. The guys sorted out the teams on Wednesday and Tuesday to play on Sunday. I was barely walking and already watching them, listening to them. And I thought: Wow, they’re going to play him on the left wing, well it’s going to be another tough one.
Did you get involved quickly in the discussions?
AW: Oh yes. By the time I was 4 or 5 I started being conscious of them and I began joining in when I was 9-10. I was locked in a culture where, unconsciously, I thought football was important in life. Because people only spoke about that.
How did you become more secure, reassured about your anguished as a 24-25 year old?
AW: Actually it happened gradually. When I was 25-26 I went to give a conference in Mulhouse with a mate who was a technical advisor. He offered me to train coaches. The transformation process was gradually being put into place. Then, my manager at Strasbourg, Max Hild, told me: “Come to the academy with me”. I went there and I became his assistant. He quickly became first-team manager, so I was promoted as Academy Director when I was 30. At 32 years old I dedicated myself to it, I stopped playing. I didn’t have time to ask myself any existential questions. Ambitions adapt to physical potential to start off. I knew I could play football forever.
Do you have other passions?
AW: No. That’s where my anxiety comes from. I’m not Ferguson. I don’t have a substitute and I’m not interested in looking back. Like writing a book on what happened to me. I live it as a suffering when former players come and see me and they’re not fully happy. Being introduced as Mr. X, former Arsenal player, and not for what he is today, that hurts. Being what you were is a suffering. I hope that in my life after football, I can be something else than the former Arsenal manager. Coach kids. Be useful.
Why do you not keep anything from your past?
AW: It worries me a bit. If you come to my place, you could never guess I’m a football manager. If you ask me where my last FA Cup medal is, I don’t know. I think I gave it to the team doctor or the kit man.
It’s paradoxical for the manager of a club that has an acute sense of history and passing on.
AW: I’m very interested in the history of others. Mine I’m much less interested in. Because I know it and not going through it allows me to forget all the stupid things I’ve done. You avoid the feeling of guiltiness. I always found it a bit pathetic that people would tour their own museums and talk about all the good they’ve done in their lives.
Who else other than you will leave a mark of your career?
AW: My club will do it very well. Media are so developed nowadays that they will tell a story about me, even if it won’t necessarily be “my” story. The real one is probably more interesting because a lot of things are not known. My father, for example, used to collect everything that was written about me. Sometimes, I feel like I’m betraying him. Because I’m not interested in that. Maybe that will change. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll think: my friend, it’s time to pause and reflect on what’s happened.
Is it harder for a modern manager to convince than to win?
AW: To win you have to convince. Society has switched from verticality to horizontality. In the 60’s a coach would say “lads we’re going to do it this way” nobody contested it. Now you have to convince first. The player is rich. The characteristic of the rich man is the need to convince him. Because he has a status. A way of thinking. People nowadays are informed. Therefore they have an opinion. And they think their opinion is right. They don’t necessarily share my opinion, so I have to convince them.
It took you some time at the beginning at Arsenal to get the club and its fans to follow your principle.
AW: Arsenal will always be a club with tradition that is not afraid of innovating.
TEXT: JIM ROSENTHAL // PHOTOGRAPHY: BENNI VALSSON