Arsenal FC manager Arsène Wenger is facing his toughest season yet. But can he make it work in the brave new football world? Mark Tjhung finds out
Poor Arsène. He probably doesn’t want us to feel sorry for him but it’s kind of hard not to. For so long a guardian of the beautiful game (footballistically speaking) and an advocate of economic sustainability in an increasingly economically unstable business, the last few years have been hard on the Frenchman, nicknamed ‘The Professor’. The football world is changing – and doesn’t he know it.
Arsenal, nicknamed the Gunners, now haven’t won a trophy since 2005 and in the season just gone – widely analysed as a tipping point in the battle between traditional and ‘new money’ powers – the North London club’s position as a true football powerhouse was threatened more than it has been at any time during the existence of the English Premier League.
Before leading his team out in their maiden appearance in Hong Kong against local powerhouse Kitchee, just prior to the Robin van Persie saga storming global headlines, the Arsenal manager chats exclusively to Time Out Hong Kong about the difficulties of the modern football world, financial fair play and how it’s all about sticking to your guns…
Hi Arsène, we’re looking forward to seeing Arsenal in Hong Kong this summer. Last season was a tough one for the Gunners but, in the end, you finished in third. Were you ultimately satisfied with that position?
When you are manager of Arsenal Football Club, you begin each season with the ambition to win trophies – and we believed that we were capable of doing that. We didn’t achieve that, so I cannot say it was a spectacular season. But I think if you look at the campaign as a whole, we lost only two of the last 16 league games and created a fantastic run. In the end we finished with 70 points in third place, as you say, which is respectable. And we qualify for the Champions League for the 15th consecutive year. Of course we are very proud of that, especially with the season having started how it did.
Indeed. The start to the season wasn’t ideal…
We had a very difficult transfer market right until the last second of the window. Then we had a hard start to the league with a lot of scepticism surrounding the team. We lost four of our opening seven games and were in 17th position in September. At that point, it is very difficult to imagine that you will finish third, so I am proud of my team for that. I am very proud of the character we showed to turn things around. We were not only tested on the football front – which as a club we are used to being – but also on our mental solidity, unity and solidarity. We were deeply tested and we did not show any weakness, kept united and in the end came back. It is a good lesson for everybody. At some stages everybody was wondering what we were doing. But we were mentally exceptionally strong and got through it.
People talk about last season as one of the best Premier League seasons ever. What did you make of the overall quality?
I must say that I thought it was an exceptionally exciting season, right up until the end. I don’t know exactly why but it was a very open campaign. The teams played a little bit with the handbrake off and really went for games – and the fact that we have quality strikers in the league are the only explanations I have. But, of course, this makes for good football to watch. The way the season ended added to things too, because nothing was decided anywhere until the final day. It was the first for a long time it has been so tight.
What kind of goals and aims are you setting at Emirates Stadium in the coming season?
The priority is again to fight for the championship and Champions League. To finish the season as high as possible. What is as high as possible is to finish first. It is as simple as that. The competition is of a high level and many aspire to that so let’s continue to play the game the way we want to play it and I believe we can show that we can compete. Our ambitions are exactly the same in Europe.
What’s the bare minimum Arsenal needs to achieve for it not to appear as a failure?
There are two basic trophies for me that signify a team’s quality in England – the Premier League and the Champions League. All the rest, they are trophies of course and they are important but they do not really reflect the deep quality of a team. The championship does. We want to win it and we believe that we can with the resources available to us and with our approach.
Obviously, things have changed a lot over the years, including all the new money in football, with the likes of Manchester City and PSG in France. Can Arsenal realistically compete on this level? If so, how?
Firstly, I must say that not being able to match the spending of the richest clubs does not mean that you can’t compete with them on the pitch. When I first came to England, this question did not exist. Every club was run within its resources. The Chelseas and the Man Citys are new problems. But with this new financial environment, what has not changed at all is our policy that we will be as ambitious as ever and spend the money that we have available, if possible in an intelligent and wise way. We have always spent money because we are ambitious for top-class players and if you look at the history of our last 15 years, we have always had top-class players. It does not mean you can’t win the title if you can’t compete financially.
You’ve always taken a very economically sustainable approach to new signings and wages. What’s your reaction to Arsenal fans’ frustrations on not being able to retain players or sign new big names?
I have been in football for a long, long time and I don’t think just spending money is a target that is defendable. To spend the money on a top player is defendable. But just to spend the money is like you are worried. Our fans can be proud of the way we run this club, of the quality of the players we have and of the financial situation that is existing at the club. Rather than convicting this club, they have more reason to be proud of the whole situation here. We have built a team and a stadium in such a short space of time, and have a strong financial situation – and we have always survived at the top level.
What impact do you think financial fair play will have on both the wider football market and Arsenal’s success?
We need first to see how effectively financial fair play can be enforced before we can fully understand the impact but I believe it will make for a more exciting Premier League. When you look at the history of England, there are Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Derby County who have all won championships. If that is possible again it will be even more interesting. If the rules are well introduced, it will be a massive advantage to Arsenal Football Club, of course, and we will be well positioned for that. I don’t want to go into excuses but you want a business to be run properly and I believe that to lose £150million a year, you don’t deserve a lot of credit to win a competition. I think that it is right that you balance your books – to accept the one basic principle for every company – and that’s that you can spend the money which you make. That principle just seems to be a common sense and logical one.
What plans do you have in the coming weeks to strengthen your squad? Are there any particular positions you want to bolster?
Well, we have already brought Lukas Podolski in. He’s a top-class forward, a great finisher and he has won 100 caps for Germany. He is a very strong player and will provide us with good attacking options – so we are very pleased with that signing. I won’t say any more than that at the moment but we are always looking to add quality to our squad.
Last season, you were criticised for leaving your pre-season spending so late. Is that going to change this year?
Yes, last year was terrible for us to be completely honest, because we finished on August 31 at 11.55pm and we certainly do not want to repeat that. We have already completed a key transfer in signing Podolski and of course we want to make any other signings early if possible. But, as well, we want to focus on the second part of our ‘signings’, which will be to take care of the players who are injured and to get them back for the start of next season. I think about Jack Wilshere and about Abou Diaby who I think will be ready for the start of the new term. [And] we are delighted to have secured the signing of Olivier Giroud. He has a very good physical presence and is exceptional in the air, with a great work ethic. We are excited about Giroud joining us and he will add an additional dimension to our attacking options next season. Giroud has proved that he is capable of performing at the top level with club and country, and we saw what a big influence he was in Montpellier’s championship winning side last season. We all look forward to Olivier joining us and seeing him play in an Arsenal shirt.
During your early years, you were renowned for your astute signings – Henry, Pires, Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka. Do you think it’s harder and harder to find bargains in today’s market?
I think it is still possible to be very competitive in the transfer market. If you look at Laurent Koscielny, for example, we found him in France from a smaller team. But you could see that there was something special there. He played at Lorient but first he played with a friend of mine in Tours, who talked to me about him when he played in the second division. Then of course we monitored him with our scouts. I believe that last year you could already see the potential but he did not have that dominance in the duels that he has found this season. That makes him, I personally believe, one of the top-class central defenders in the Premier League, and he wasn’t a star European player when we signed him.
Has your scouting process changed over the years? Have you paid any attention to the ‘in-vogue’ Moneyball method?
It’s my job to know when something is there. In every profession you have people who dream to get to the top. First you need the talent – but also you need to meet someone who believes in you and gives you a chance. In football, I like to be the guy who believes in people and stands up for them. That’s where we can influence people in a positive way. You can imagine, though, that plenty of people have talent in life but they do not meet someone who gives them a chance. For example, can you name one Formula One driver from an African country, apart from South Africa? And can you really imagine that there is not one guy in Africa with the talent to be a Formula One driver? Why not? Because no-one has given them a chance. In life it’s important to meet someone who will give you a chance, and when I can do this in football, I do it. I met Billy Beane but I am completely uncultured in baseball. I have to admit, it is very difficult for me to understand. I was a bit in touch with it in Japan, it is a big sport there. In Nagoya there was a team so I met the coach a few times. From what I have heard from Stan Kroenke, Billy Beane has done exceptionally well in baseball. He is obsessed by statistics. I like the numbers as well because what is repeated is not a coincidence. If you think you have a good defence, if you are always conceding goals, the numbers will tell you the truth. But what is more difficult is to number the performances.
We’ve seen style and pragmatism fight for right of place over the past decade, and Barcelona’s style under Pep Guardiola has become ‘the’ style of football at the moment. Has there ever been a time when you’ve doubted your football philosophy and contemplated adapting your particular style of play?
I would say we are a bit more controlled and less cavalier. We are less adventurous when the job is done, I must say. For me the important thing is to act with style, with class and with forward-thinking. But there’s one quality maybe that I rate above any of them – the club has always known to be brave. Since I’ve been here – and certainly before that too – the club has had courage and that is an underrated quality. In a big club you need to be extremely brave. Why? Because the pressure is bigger, because the media is always around you and because the drive for results is so big. Every defeat is a disaster. So to make the right decisions, you need to be brave.
We’ve seen some exciting new managers come through this season – perhaps, most excitingly, in terms of flowing football à la Arsenal, Brendan Rodgers (Swansea City last season, now at Liverpool). What’s your view on this? Do you think this vindicated your footballing philosophy?
I have a lot of respect for managers like him because I know how difficult a job it is. He plays in a positive way and makes it pay off. We all try to play in a positive way and if it doesn’t come off we are quickly criticised. There is also Paul Lambert, who did very well with Norwich City last year. The right way to approach it is to get the right formula and I think they have done that.
Arsenal used to do pre-season in Austria to concentrate on the upcoming season rather than these pre-season tours, and you’ve recently been quoted as calling it a ‘sporting compromise’. It’s Asia now. What do you see as the benefits of these pre-season tournaments?
How much Arsenal are loved in Asia and how much the Premier League has penetrated Asia has been positive. There is a big potential for fans here and that is the main reason why English teams come here. The group live together in a completely different environment so it is very important to have that kind of experience together. It is also an opportunity for us to develop our game, to see what shape the players are in when they come back and also to see any new players that we have. It will be important to see how well they can integrate with the team. I resisted for a long time but, as the Premier League becomes more and more a world league, it is important that we develop our fan bases. China is a massive country where football is developing. The Premier League is a world brand and you don’t want to miss out in a country where you have so many potential fans. The organisation will be great, the hospitality will be great. People always try to help you out so I am not too worried about the aspects that you are usually worried about when you go on a long trip. The fact that I have worked in Japan and I have been to Malaysia and China, I know how well people want to do for you and so I am quite peaceful to go there.
Arsenal plays Kitchee on Sun Jul 29 at Hong Kong Stadium. Tickets: Sold Out but you can win if you enter in Time Out HK's giveaway here!