Bayern Munich’s loss? It appears Arsene Wenger will not, after all, become manager of FC Hollywood, whose desire for a coach who will tighten up their defence and push the team towards winning the Champions League does not fit his profile.
The idea of Wenger as a short-term fix held an excitement, a novelty value. His 22 years at Arsenal suggest him as one of football’s empire builders, like his great rival Alex Ferguson, Jim McClean, who did a similar 22-year tenure at Dundee United or Guy Roux, the French compatriot who was manager of Auxerre for all but two years from 1961 to 2005.
Roux, unthinkably, after two years out of the game, decided he fancied another go, taking on Lens, only to resign after just four matches. “I felt that I had lost the impetus that helps coaches make players better at the highest level,” Roux said in August 2007. “It’s humiliating to acknowledge this.”
It would be a great shame were Wenger to suffer the same loss of nerve, but whoever, if anyone, takes him on, might feel the benefit of someone whose enthusiasm for the game has been refreshed since that April 2018 day when his departure from Arsenal was announced.
Back at the Emirates, his reputation is back on the rise as Unai Emery falters; those ‘Wenger Out’ banners and social media outbursts have not weathered well. And English football as a whole misses someone who spoke with such lucidity, and by the end of his time, a twinkling ironic humour. As much as he would glower in defeat, and rail against the fates, there was always the sense that he realised that football was not completely the be-all and end-all. He has a winning sense of the ridiculous.
And at his peak, the rivalry he had with Ferguson is yet to be matched. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s chips at each other’s teams are fresh-air shots compared to the heavy artillery United and Arsenal’s patriarchs, now firm friends, used to launch at each other.
Germany and the Bundesliga always seemed a decent fit for someone who grew up in a bar above a bar in the Alsace region of France, on the German border; he has spoken German since childhood. Bayern, less so, since Wenger was always someone who liked to run things from top to bottom, and the Bundesliga’s superclub is run by a number of competing princes, with the head of the family, Uli Hoeness, set to step down in the next few days to leave something of a power vacuum and definitely some modernising to be done.
Wenger was offering a steadying hand, an experienced voice, someone known as one of the best man-managers in the game; you will struggle to find an ex-Wenger player willing to unload on their former boss. It is as a nurturer of talent, rather than as a serial collector of medals that is his greatest achievement.
There is an argument that Wenger’s best players never played better than they did for him, from Patrick Vieira to Thierry Henry to Cesc Fabregas to Ashley Cole, even the likes of Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Martin Keown and Steve Bould, veterans he inherited, were regenerated into superior, more complete performers.
He improved those players in a short time, his transformation of Arsenal delivering a Double in less than two years. And before that, he had done similar at Monaco. Glenn Hoddle, the former king of White Hart Lane, has rarely veered from the view that his best football was played under the liberal regime that Wenger laid out for him in the Principality.
It was certainly the most enjoyable. “We were very dominant, we played some wonderful football, he loves to play creative football,” Hoddle said of a manager for whom he did plenty of PR for on the Frenchman’s arrival in a mystified England. And it was not just the open, passing football that was a great difference for Hoddle and fellow England veteran Mark Hatelely; the training regime was far more rigorous than on the muddy fields back home. And Wenger, unlike the greying, cigar-chomping managers of the old First Division, was out on the field himself, keeping himself trim.
One of the jokes made about Wenger is that he introduced broccoli to the Premier League, as opposed to the suet puddings and deep-fat fried delights that were the previous staple; the likes of Ferguson have dismissed this, but the power that Wenger’s early Arsenal team exerted made others rethink their fuelling habits. Wenger had followed the cycling adage that lower body mass can be balanced against greater power. He has often told how during his time in Japan he had noticed that the population was much thinner than Europeans, the diet centring on eating vegetables and protein.
Such ideas are now set in stone in modern football, though Wenger never chose to revolutionise much further. When he left Arsenal, it was said his training routines had been much the same as when he had arrived 22 years before, but his effect on players might still convince a club to want to have him around.
“Wenger changed everything at the club and he showed the players that they could enjoy playing football, enjoy training,” said Dragan Stojkovic, one of his players at Nagoya Grampus Eight. “Besides God, I think that without Arsene, there was no way I would have made it in Europe,” said George Weah last year, the man who became Liberian president and handed his former boss the exalted label of Knight Grand Commander of the Humane Order of African Redemption.
Are Bayern missing a trick? There is the suggestion Wenger might actually have been a decent short-term fix. A glance at his CV announces that Wenger’s teams have gone best when fresh, with both Monaco and Arsenal winning league titles in his first full season in charge, while also laying deep foundations for the future.
Players like Henry at Monaco and Fabregas and Cole at Arsenal were brought into clubs which suited them, where youth would be given a chance.
Both clubs would be derailed by entities that Wenger did not hide his contempt for, in the billionaire injections of Chelsea and Manchester City in England, and Marseille in France, bankrolled by Bernard Tapie and eventually found to be corrupt. There would be no such impediment in Germany.
If Bayern think Wenger is a man out of time, he clearly does not. There may still be another fulfilling football life to live.