Arsene Wenger is known as a particularly hands-on manager when it comes to coaching, and he readily admits that teaching players is the most enjoyable part of football.
In fact it’s possible this was the case even during his own playing days. By his own admission, Wenger had a modest playing career – with Mutzig, Mulhouse and Strasbourg in France – but he showed a natural ability and passion to coach from an early age.
It was at Strasbourg during the 1970s where the boss took his first formal steps into coaching, while still a player in his mid-twenties. He quickly progressed from coaching the reserve and youth sides there to become assistant manager of AS Cannes. Then, in 1984 – at the age of 34 – he took over as boss of Nancy in Ligue 1.
"You always have to be on top of what’s coming out new. It has developed and today I think I’m completely up to date with every aspect of the game"
Three years later he was appointed manager of AS Monaco, the club at which he won his first honours and where his reputation as a forward-thinking coach really began to blossom.
For the past 18 years Wenger has been putting his coaching philosophies into practice on the pitches at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground.
In this follow up to last month’s exclusive Magazine interview with the boss about training methods, the 65-year-old recalls his own coaching background, and discusses how the role of coach has changed over the years.
When did you take your coaching qualifications? I was already an instructor at the age of 25 or 26 so I did my license at 23 or 24. That meant I could coach until Ligue 1 and then I was an instructor in France for people who were passing their license to be a manager up to Ligue 1 level. After that, at the age of 33, I passed my license – what we call today the UEFA A license. By then I was already starting to work in the top league in France. So basically at 33 years old I was there.
Has the coaching course changed much since you took it? I think the course has changed because the scientific aspect is bigger today than when I passed it. At the time we were quite good on physiology in France and if I can give myself credit, I always keep in touch with what’s coming out and what’s new. All the aspects that include competitiveness in football, including psychological, mental, physiological, tactical – development never stops.
You always have to be on top of what’s coming out new. It has developed and today I think I’m completely up to date with every aspect of the game. But now it has become so vast that you have to have personnel around you who can master some aspects of the game better than you, like the physiological aspects, the biomechanics, how to correct the movement of the player. It’s so specialised now that you need to be surrounded by a team. It’s good that you know the basics of it yourself, then you get people around you who are specialised in certain aspects of the game.
What do you think of the UEFA coaching courses now? Do you believe young coaches are being taught the right things? I believe the courses are good, but you have to remember that the courses do not produce managers. The courses give people the basic knowledge to get a really good idea of what they think is important. It is like if I asked you, “Can you teach players to take penalties?”
Yes, but when the pressure is on with one minute to go, you’re lonely and you have to find the resources within yourself to do it. It’s a bit like that to be a manager. It’s good to give them all the aspects that are important. But then, to be a manager is to get up every day and be ready to commit 100 per cent.
You have to make every single decision like the club is your own, you have to have the guts to push your ideas through when you think they are right, and make sure the club takes a different dimension during the period you are at the club. It includes so much, and on top of that you have to give a style to the team and win the next game. Because if you don’t win the next game, then you’ll have no chance to push through all of your other ideas.
Do managers speak to each other about how to improve their coaching? How do you do that without giving away secrets? Well, we talk to other managers but more about the problems we have, not about the solutions we have! But let’s be completely honest, I am sure that our secrets are very small. Maybe it’s five per cent of the success that you can bring to the team. When you have worked so hard to find what is right in training, you’re not so keen to give it out to other people. But there’s no basic secret.
Ninety five per cent of the secret is in the feet of the players and in their quality. That’s why football is so rich – you cannot programme the players. You can help give them a few percentage more, with the confidence and the quality in training and to be as good as they can be, but the biggest part comes from the player and his individual quality.
Where do your find your inspiration for coming up with new coaching drills? When I was younger I read books, I looked everywhere, but today I know what I want and what kind of exercise to do. I adjust the exercises to what I want to work on at that moment. If I want to work on longer games, shorter games, changing sides, switching sides, I adapt the exercise to what we are looking for.
What basics are still being used in training from when you were a player yourself? The basics have not changed. They are: when you get the ball, make a good control or first touch, and make a good pass. That has not changed. What has changed is the time available for you to do all of that, the time available to make a right decision and the fitness of the players you play against.
Everything has become shorter, but that’s the same in everyday life as well. The time to make decisions has beeshortened, therefore everything has to be quicker, everything is under more pressure, the players are under much more stress than they were 20 years ago – physical and mental stress as well. Therefore I would say the preparation has to be more perfect than it was 20 years ago.
Back then you could get away with a player who was not completely right – like if a guy had a little pain in his knee. But today you can’t get away with it because the guy who plays against him is super quick and ready for the fight and he’ll have no chance. So you could say a lot has changed, but in the end, the intelligent player is still the king on the pitch.
Is coaching players still the favourite part of your job? Yes of course, I love football and I love to try to help the players to be better. I love as well that players feel they can become a better player at this club. I think that’s an important part of the job. As I said earlier, I started at the age of 31, now I am 65 and I’ve never stopped. Never, not for a day. So I have spent 34 years on the pitches every day. It has been my life and it will be my life as long as I can do it.
Do you get to do much one-on-one coaching? How does that work in a team sport? Yes, we break into smaller groups and we have many coaches. Today we have Steve Bould, Neil Banfield, Boro Primorac and myself so we can divide the work into smaller groups. I am more of a supervisor sometimes for the exercises so I can go from group to group.
We also have Tony Colbert, Shad Forsythe and Craig Gant on the fitness side outside with us so we can split the squad into groups and I can look at every single player, see what’s right, what’s not right and what’s going on. I have top- quality coaches too who can also give advice to individual players. Every player gets support from our coaching staff.
What do Steve, Neil and Boro each do in training sessions? How much do you delegate? Well, Steve is more defence-oriented. He gives a lot to the players from his vast defensive experience. Boro and Neil concentrate a bit more on the midfield and offensive positions. They each have their own strengths and responsibilities. They all communicate well. Steve is my first assistant and he has a huge influence on me in that aspect of the game.
Are you afraid that they might want to leave coaching and go into management themselves? No, not afraid because I believe the most important thing is that you are happy in your job. For me there’s no priority between being a manager or a coach. The coach has a huge influence as well. There are many aspects of a manager’s job that a coach doesn’t necessarily want, the confrontation side.
I think for all of us, our first love is to be on the grass – on the green side of the job. All the rest, we cope with it because we want to be on the pitch. So if the coaches don’t want to do all the rest, I can completely understand that. Managers have to split their time between what they love to do, and what they sometimes love a little bit less.
Could you ever see yourself being more of a manager and less of a coach in future? Look, I am not naive enough to believe I will be forever on a football pitch! At some stage I will have to do something different. But as long as I can, I want to be on the pitch. That’s where I’m happy, that’s where I get my satisfaction, that’s where I feel I can be useful. After that, I don’t know. If you consider the average lifespan of a manager is 12 months, then I was so lucky to have 35 years so far. So I push on.
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