Arsene Wenger: The business of winning

Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger

Football is business – big business. And Arsène Wenger knows that better than most.

The manager famously graduated from the University of Strasbourg with a degree in economics, and his business acumen was called upon when he had to help balance the books as Arsenal paid for the move to Emirates Stadium.

Which might explain why, during the club’s pre- season trip to Australia and China, the manager was invited to address both business leaders and students – although this being Arsène, the questions and answers inevitably turned to the business of football.

First up, a group of businessmen in Sydney were invited to an Emirates Business Breakfast, where the lucky attendees got to ask questions, as well as meet the boss, chairman Ivan Gazidis and, most excitingly of all, the FA Cup....

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the big interview

Arsène, tell us about your early life, and how you came to love football...
I grew up in a little village, near the local football club, and my life was dominated by two things: I had to go to church, and of course I heard only about football every day. And I understood very quickly, watching the team, that you need religion to win football games! So I decided to do something about it, and make sure that my religion was football. And that hasn’t changed.

Football is a religion for some, but it’s also a business. What’s your ethos as a manager?
I try to combine the values I think are important in a football team – because it’s a team sport, and giving something to your team makes you better. It’s not easy to understand when you’re 20, because you’re more obsessed by your own individual performance, by your ego and by your desire to be the star. So I try to convince my players that the expression of the team makes everyone individually stronger.

We have values at the club, and we try to transform what we do on the pitch into art. We want to give every fan who wakes up on the morning of a match the opportunity to think, “Maybe I can have a great experience today by watching my football team.” It’s about giving them something more, something special that’s beautiful to watch. I must say, it’s not easy, but as a football club you need to at least have this ambition.

There’s a lot of money in football these days, which can be a challenge for managers. How do you inspire players to work for the team and for the fans?
Money is the consequence of the quality of your performances – or at least it should be. I try to get the players to get their priorities right. Don’t be obsessed by money. Focus on the quality of your performance. If the quality of your performance is great, we live in a privileged sport where we have a lot of money, and I don’t know anybody who performs well who is not what we call rich. So I think they have the luxury to focus on the quality of their performance. Intelligence in life is to focus on what’s important.

What has your experience taught you about footballers?
I have huge experience – 35 years in the job – and I’ve seen so many people who are hugely talented, but I’ve also seen average talents have fantastic careers, and that experience helps me to help the players. At the end of the day the football club is there to help the player make a great career. I can predict, at the age of 24 or 25, what a player’s life will be, because I’ve seen so many players.

We have values at the club, and we try to transform what we do on the pitch into art. We want to give every fan who wakes up on the morning of a match the opportunity to think, “Maybe I can have a great experience today by watching my football team”

I must say as well there is no happiness after your career because at 34 years of age you lose your passion, you lose your celebrity and you lose your income.

People don’t imagine how difficult it is when you’ve been on top of the world to continue with your life and to accept that you’re not at the top anymore, no matter what you do after. You can talk on television but you will never share on the pitch or in the dressing room that feeling that you’ve achieved something together. And you miss that for the rest of your life.

In terms of recruiting, how do you keep finding the talent in this globalised football world where it is so competitive?
The success of our job is to get the right people in, as it is in any company. The first three steps are scouting, getting the right people in, secondly giving them the right coaching programme that develops them well and finally integrating them into a competitive team that is destined to win football games. If you get the first one wrong you go nowhere. We have scouts all over the world, we have analytics and video scouting as well – we have analysts watching games all over the world every weekend and you can see on computer how any player in the world is doing. It doesn’t make the decision easier because you still need to choose players who can integrate and suit our team.

How do you set objectives?
Our objective is to win every competition. If you’re a football manager and you say you don’t want to win this competition you’re finished! But the objective is always to combine the short term and the long term: win the next game, win the next game, win the next game, and extract the maximum potential from your group. How you measure that, nobody knows. I have won league championships, FA Cups, and I sometimes felt I had done better with the potential of my team when we finished third. That’s being objective, rather than setting objectives. But of course the aim at the start of every season is to win every competition. It’s not easy, though. You have 20 billionaires in the Premier League and only one of them will be happy!

You’ve been a manager for an awfully long time and of course there have been ups and downs along the way. There was a lot of speculation in the media about your own future last season, so how do you build resilience within yourself and within the organisation when you’re continually under such scrutiny?
That’s a very interesting question, because how do you survive when people are questioning you or when they think you’re wrong? I think it comes back to values. First of all you come back to passion, for what you love and what you think is right. You have to do what you believe in. That is one of my strengths, and I’m experienced enough today to take a distance with opinions.

When people say I’m the greatest I’m lucid enough to know that’s not true, and when people say I’m the worst I’m experienced enough to know that’s not true either. I have a fair assessment of what I’m doing, and what I’m doing right or wrong. It doesn’t mean I don’t doubt, don’t question myself, but I don’t give the credit to other people’s opinions as much as I did, say, 20 years ago.

What would your advice be to aspiring coaches and managers?
You need to identify what you love in the game and what’s important for you. You need a clear idea of how you want to play the game, and you have to have the mental strength to transform practically what you think intellectually. I’ve met many, many bright people in life but fewer brave people, and as a coach you have to be brave enough to say, “I believe that is right and I will show you on the football pitch.” And that is what I love in my job. It’s not just about talking – you have to prove that what you think works, and you always have the result of what you think at the end of every game. Sometimes you are wrong, but at least you know that you’re wrong. At the end of the day you have to be brave enough to make your ideas work. It transforms your personality. You need a rigorous attitude in life, and to transform your ideas into action.

Success is also about managing change. What’s been the biggest change in football during your career?
To sum it up I was the youngest manager in the top flight in France at the age of 33. I’m 67 today. I’ve never stopped. When I started I was alone with my team. I booked the coach, I paid the restaurant, and today I’m surrounded by a team. The debriefs after training are absolutely massive and I’m flooded with information: how many steps a player took, how many sprints they did, how many metres per second, how was a player’s heart rate, how many times did it go over 90 per cent of his maximum heart rate, how many times over 95 per cent – absolutely everything is analysed today. So I moved from a very intuitive moment of my career to a super-analytical way to manage today.

How much attention do you pay to the numbers? Is there still room for intuition?
You can manage individual players better today – but it’s more difficult to cheat. You can’t hide behind a tree anymore! You’re more informed to make a better decision, but you still have to make the decision.

Next up, the boss addressed students at Shanghai Jiaotong University once the Gunners had landed in China, and as well as receiving gifts and a standing ovation from the local fans he once again answered questions about both business and football.

Do you have any advice for the students here about how they can get a job? And how they can get a job at Arsenal FC?!
Well, that’s a very difficult question! One thing you have to ask yourself is, “What do I really want to make of my life? What is my dream?” Your dream may not to be a football manager – it may be to be an artist or writer or to sell houses – but what’s important is to ask yourself the question and answer it in complete honesty. And then be brave enough and strong enough to try to do it. In my case, my childhood desire was just to live in football...

And then you studied economics! 
I studied economics because I was not too bad at school and because I was not sure that I could make my life in football. But my belief was there. How could I get into football? I didn’t know. And I met people who said, “My friend I believe in you.” A successful dream is wanting to do something and meeting someone who says, “I believe in you and I give you a chance.” If you look back on life it’s always like that – someone giving you a chance. But maybe you’re given that chance because of the attitude you have. You must provoke that belief.

Being a manager is also about making others believe in themselves. How do you build up the players’ mental strength?
I believe success in life, and especially in football, is down to the desire to be as good as you can be. But also there are two important ingredients in every football player who plays at the top level. The first is that he analyses very well his performances, and is capable of doing that in an objective way. The second part, which is very important, is that he’s capable of maintaining his focus for a longer period. That means he has good stamina in his motivation. The people who are successful in life are the ones who want to go from A to B and are able to maintain their focus to get there, and not give up at the first obstacle. Players go through difficult periods, they have to face competition to get in the team and they must maintain their focus. There aren’t many people who can do that. Where does mental strength come from? Mental strength comes from our own internal demands, and also from external pressure, from the environment. And today the pressure coming from the environment is high because football has become a global sport, the media is very demanding and people on the internet are very demanding, and the stress that people face is very high. But I always say to the players that what’s important is that one day you turn and look back on your career and you think, “I did as well as I could.” At the end, the real judge is yourself. It’s not the others. Look in the mirror at the end of the career and think, “I did my best.” That’s what’s important.

Arsene Wenger

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