Those mornings, there was never enough time. For years, you could set your watch by Arsène Wenger. Punctuality is a rare trait in soccer, but Wenger was fastidious about it. His weekly news conference at Colney, Arsenal’s training facility just outside London, always started at 9 a.m. And it started at 9 a.m. sharp.
There were days when Wenger was defensive, prickly, a little irascible, but they were rare. Often, particularly in the later years of his reign, he gave the impression that he was happy to talk, to chew the fat, to delve deep into some issue or other that had grabbed his attention.
It was rarely something headline-grabbing; long-term trends in the development of players in South America always seemed to engage him more than the delay in Jack Wilshere’s new contract.
But there was never enough time. It was a point of principle to Wenger that, even as an elder statesman, he should be on the training field before his players every day. If he was not going to be late for the news media, he certainly would not be late for them.
And so, just as he seemed to be getting going, as he started to bestow his wisdom and share his thoughts, he would cut the whole thing short and — with impeccable politeness — extricate himself. Questions and ideas would hang there in the air, never fully realized.
Now, though, Wenger has time. More time, anyway. Since he left Arsenal in 2018, it has been easy to believe him to be retired, to assume that his role at FIFA — as chief of global football development — would mean a hefty salary but little actual work.
If he has retired, though, he is not especially good at it. If the FIFA job was meant to be a sinecure, he was hoodwinked. He has been tasked with creating a research department that can identify structural deficiencies in every country around the world. He is working to improve the facilities and coaching in 200 national federations. He wants to make sure “everyone has chance to play structured football.” In his spare time, he has written a memoir, and embarked on a moderately demanding promotional schedule.
This should, perhaps, be no surprise. Wenger never made a convincing candidate for a quiet life. Bixente Lizarazu, the former France defender and an occasional colleague of Wenger’s from his time as a television pundit, always worried that it would be “impossible for him to stop.”
It is a characterization Wenger recognizes. His approach to management was all-encompassing. He prepared, he said, like a “top-level athlete: I never went out, never went to a disco, ate early, did my gym.” His approach, he writes, was “monastic.”
That came at a cost. Amid the recollections of his great teams, his new book is at its most compelling when he sheds even a glimmer of light on the personal sacrifices. Management, he writes, is “lonely.” More than once, he hints that he did not spend quite so much time with his daughter, Lea, as he might have done. (His pride in her is evident: There are several mentions of her academic success at Cambridge University.)
“If you want success, you have to commit completely,” he said, when asked if he regretted that approach. “No matter what kind of life you lead, you have to find the meaning in that life. I did that. Football was the meaning in my life. I have no regrets on that.
“But, like every single-minded life, it develops some aspects and kills others. When you are in competition, you become tough. You kill your sensitivity. You focus on efficiency and winning, but don’t develop other parts of your personality. I regret that. But I don’t regret the life I lived. I would do it the same way again.”
His dedication to the game remains. The metaphors he chooses speak of both a higher calling and a base addiction. Even now, he said, “a day without football is like a day without mass for a priest,” he said. He misses management — or, more, the basic tenet of being a coach, helping “players to maximize the talent they have” — because “if you take a drug every day for 36 years, you miss it, even if it does not mean you take it again.”
He has found a balance, then. He can still be consumed by soccer; it is just that now, he does not have the demands of the immediate to distract him from the big questions, the grander thoughts.
And he still has those thoughts, on anything and everything. He worries that the development of players is suffering because clubs are too quick to solve problems for their young talents. “The balance between providing support for players and asking them to use their initiative is too much toward support,” he said. “We have to encourage players to take the initiative again, to solve their own problems.”
He fears that clubs are too quick to “ask what they can do to help,” whether it is offering psychologists or specialist coaches, and he accepts that he was “one of the first to create the problem,” that his modernization of Arsenal led to teams’ employing a phalanx of coaches to take care of every aspect of a player’s growth, removing individual agency.
He believes that soccer, at the elite level, is growing too homogeneous, running the risk of “losing local characteristics.” He thinks that in an era when “everyone plays a little bit the same, and everyone thinks they are the only ones who play like that,” there is a danger that creativity has been outsourced to the collective.
“The technical level has regressed a little bit,” he said. “Barcelona today is not as good as before. Real Madrid is the same. Bayern Munich is not as good as it was when it had Robben and Ribéry on full power. The teamwork is of a high standard, but individually the level has gone down.”
In that context, he sees creative players being stifled. “Physique has taken over, and the creative players have been kicked out,” he said. “You want to see players like Maradona, Cruyff, Platini, Zidane. But since we measure the physical performances, these players are suffering.” He sees, in his former charge Mesut Özil, one of the victims of that shift.
He credits France’s “successful immigration policy” with its remarkable treasure-trove of talent. He regards an era of satellite clubs — as practiced by Manchester City and the Red Bull network — as an inevitability. “You cannot have a situation where the country that educated the boys has to pay megamoney to use them, as has happened with Paul Pogba and Jadon Sancho,” he said. “That system cannot last.”
He suspects that the coronavirus pandemic will accelerate soccer’s journey to one of two futures: either a European Super League, something he has been warning about for some time, or to a world in which “the Premier League eats everything else.” He just hopes that the sight of empty stadiums teaches the game that “without fans, we are not the same sport.”
And he wonders if soccer has, perhaps, become too narrow in its definition of success. “We live in a society where only the winner gets credit, and everyone else feels useless,” he said. “But real life is not like that.”
Wenger, perhaps, is a prime example of that. There were plenty of those, a few years ago, who pointed at him — in a stadium he helped design, working at a club whose modern reputation he forged, in a league he had helped to define — and told him that he had failed, all because he had not won a championship for a decade or so.
It is hard to believe Wenger misses all of that: the pressure, the criticism, the heat. But for all that he has given to soccer, all that it has taken from him, he does not seem to have wearied of it at all. He has a chance, now, to do whatever he wants. This is what he wants to do: to think about some of the big questions, and to try to find answers. And, at last, he feels as though he has time to do so.
Purpose Amid the Pointlessness
It is possible, in theory, that there has been a more meaningless sporting event in history than Denmark’s 2-0 victory over Sweden on Wednesday night. I’d always assumed that a penalty shootout between two teams who had already been eliminated from a competition was the height of futility. But this may have trumped it.
Not simply because it was an international friendly in the middle of a pandemic, yet another fixture in a schedule that is pushing players to their physical limits and managers to the ends of their tethers.
That was bad enough, but worse was that both teams — especially the host, Denmark — were basically scratch sides, cobbled together to make up for players missing through a combination of coronavirus positives, travel restrictions and compulsory quarantines. The best illustration of its absurdity, though, was that neither manager could attend: both were self-isolating after possible exposure to the virus. (Sweden’s Janne Andersson was confirmed as positive before kickoff.)
It is hard to mount a convincing case that this international break should be happening at all. Its existence is testament to the emptiness of Aleksandar Ceferin’s promise that the pandemic would bring soccer together in a spirit of mutual compromise. Nobody, in the event, has compromised at all. All the games are still happening. Every interest group has made sure to get what it wants, and they all expect both the players and the fans to swallow it.
There are, though, a handful of cases in which this break is of some use. The United States men’s national team, for example, has not gathered together for eight months. In that time, the profile of the squad available to Gregg Berhalter, the coach, has changed considerably.
The players at Berhalter’s command are suddenly some of the most exciting prospects in European soccer: Chris Richards, Sergiño Dest, Yunus Musah and, perhaps most of all, Giovanni Reyna. Tyler Adams has established himself at RB Leipzig. Weston McKennie is thriving at Juventus. Only three players in Berhalter’s squad are over 26.
Fixtures against Wales in Wales and Panama in, well, Austria, obviously, will be of enormous use to Berhalter as he begins to shape a World Cup-quality team from these promising raw materials. For all the (accurate) cynicism about why these games are happening, that provides at least one valid reason for persevering with them. Soccer’s present is extremely difficult, but it must endure it if it is to have an easier, better future.
In Case You Missed It
Over the years, soccer has produced a million underdog stories: Leicester City winning the Premier League, Iceland qualifying for the World Cup, the United States beating England in black-and-white and in glorious technicolor. They are all special, but a lot of the building blocks of each story are the same: charismatic coach, plucky set of players, some behind-the-scenes secret that explains it all.
Bodo/Glimt — Norway’s champion-in-waiting — is cast from the same mold, but with one exception: it is essentially the Platonic ideal of an underdog story. The team has captivated Norway this year, something that is particularly poignant given that the pandemic means barely anyone has seen its games live. It should lift the title next weekend. That will be balm for everyone’s soul this year.
This weekend’s standout club fixture, meanwhile, is Manchester City’s meeting with Manchester United in the Women’s Super League in England. This year, it comes with added American interest: Tobin Heath and Christen Press in red, Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle in blue. Talking to them this week, it is clear they have bought into the rivalry. Much more than they have bought into English washing machines, anyway.
One of our regular correspondents, Ben Myers, is in touch to ask if there is a parallel between James Rodríguez and Patrick Bamford, the subject of last week’s column. “James had a breakout 2014 World Cup, but since then he has been treated mostly as a spare part at Real Madrid and Bayern,” Ben wrote. “He may never reach the Galáctico status once imagined for him, but he has now landed on the right team, at the right time, with the right coach.”
The comparison is valid — Rodríguez may have a talent an order of magnitude greater than Bamford, but he, too, needs to be utilized correctly to shine — but I wonder if Rodríguez has been victim of another trope: the idea that failure at the very highest level is too often equated with inevitable failure elsewhere. Just because Rodríguez was never given a true chance at Real Madrid should not, in any way, have caused his ability to be questioned.
That’s all for this week. All feedback is welcome at email@example.com, or on Twitter, too, where my contributions are only very rarely blocked for being rife with disinformation. Set Piece Menu includes an unlikely parallel between Alex Ferguson and my mother that centers on the correct locations of coffee cups. It makes sense in context. Oh, and make sure to tell all your friends to sign up for this newsletter.