Over the course of his career, Arsene Wenger has managed many big players. Most of them, though, are big names today because of him.
Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp amongst countless others are titans of the modern game, but those who became so under Wenger’s guidance owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
What is sad is how he’ll be appreciated as a titan himself once he retires yet for now, he is beginning to look more and more out of touch; old, on the wane, and no longer able to stay at the top. The problem stems not from his ability as a coach, but from unwillingness to bend to the demands of the modern world: spending vast sums of money on players at the peak of their powers has never been the Wenger way.
He has had the chance to retire several times over the past decade. He has always said he would never break his contract, but many of those have come to an end. So too have trophy droughts, though Arsenal haven’t won a league title in well over a decade. But if you want to know everything about Wenger’s whole worldview – and one that doesn’t seem to have changed much over time – you need only look at the quote above. It was never about money, contracts, trophies or the media, it was about the love of the game and nothing else.
The joys of looking back over a career that’s lasted three decades in top class management is that quotes are left along the path like souvenirs, traceable to momentous events and woven from the context of their time. Speaking about the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, another of Wenger’s quotes on the subject has seen a swell in relevance as the Frenchman struggles against his own footballing mortality. Ferguson could retire, according to Wenger, because he had horses. ‘But I have no horses.’
It would seem from the outside that, for a man who loves football so much, Wenger is someone who really hates the game. The folly of throwing around barely-fathomable sums of cash, justified only by the fact that others are throwing it around, too, is anathema to Wenger just as it might be to most people outside the game, but the difference is that Wenger is so firmly ensconced in modern football that he, unlike everyone else, has no horses: there are no outside influences on a man who lives only for one thing.
Football exists in a bubble and so does Wenger. At some point, both must burst.
The game has changed both in its own outlook and the way it is viewed by the outside world, supported by its fans, and covered by the media. To look back at Wenger’s 1999 quote now, almost two decades on, is to be reminded that this is a man who took charge of a club when the idea of 24-hour news was still in its infancy and the internet came with the sound of the scrambling of phone lines. He presided over the same institution for so many years that it – in line with the rest of the world – became unrecognisable. The only constant is the manager.
Match reports from the time often start with the words ‘last night’, today they are frantically written during the game and published on the full-time whistle. Quotes from press conferences don’t become public knowledge from the papers the next day, but from Twitter seconds after they are said. It seems like a different age, and it probably is. But Wenger’s roots are from a different time.
And so if Wenger seems like a bit of a misfit, it’s probably because he is. Even in 1999, Nicolas Anelka wanted to leave Arsenal to grow in fame and prestige, to earn more money and to win more trophies. 17 years later, it’s more relevant than ever. Just like with Anelka, Wenger faces the same scenario, but this time it’s Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil who are rocking the boat. But the passing of time, and the changes in football haven’t changed Wenger’s mind.
But why should it? After all, this is a man who loves the sport, not anything else. The money is good, but it’s good everywhere, not just at Real Madrid, and not just at Arsenal. And in the end, when you retire, you won’t count money.
If Wenger’s words are crafted with the context of 1999, and Anelka’s transfer to Real Madrid, then the people who ought to listen are the wantaway stars of today. Sanchez and Ozil, in the same position as Anelka before them, could quite easily end up just like he did.
“I was very young at Arsenal and at Real Madrid and maybe I didn’t realise the chance I had,” Anelka told the Daily Mail in 2008. Had he stayed with Arsenal, he would have been at the peak of his powers in 2006 when the Gunners were climbing to the summit of European football and very nearly scaling it. Instead, he swapped it for two goals in 19 league appearances for Real Madrid. That’s not to say he had a bad career, but despite his medals and his money, he’ll be a hero to few of his clubs.
When they retire, players like Sanchez, Ozil and Anelka will have some medals and their money. Sir Alex Ferguson will have his horses. But whatever happens, you get the feeling that Wenger will always have football.