This story first appeared in the May 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
"I met him, I played against him and we had some exchanges. We shared many ideas and I personally have been influenced by Johan Cruyff and this Dutch generation of football."
Those were Arsène Wenger's words after Cruyff - the legendary Dutch playmaker and coach - passed away in late March. Anyone who witnessed Cruyff play, or indeed watched the teams he later managed, will certainly recognize the hallmarks of the Dutch master's style and panache in Arsenal's brand of football over the past 20 years.
But Arsène admits his approach to management and playing style has been influenced by many different factors through the years, and indeed he constantly seeks, and finds, fresh inspiration. As one of the most experienced managers in world football though, Arsène is now more of an influencer himself; sharing his ideas and philosophies not only with fellow football bosses, but with coaches from a variety of sports.
So what exactly does it mean to be influenced as a coach? How do you learn from the best, yet retain your own beliefs and principles? Arsène sat down with the Arsenal Magazine to discuss the roles of protégés and mentors.
You've said that the late Johan Cruyff was one of your early influences, what specifically did you learn from him?
His positive attitude towards the game and his desire to be brave enough to play. We are of course in a job where the result dictates the beliefs and judgments of other people. So you need to be strong and take a distance from that, to stick to your beliefs. I believe a good manager is not somebody who only has great ideas. That's the difference between managers and intellectuals.
A good manager is someone who has his own ideas of how football should be played, but after that he also needs the guts and courage to take the decisions, to play the kind of football he wants to play. That's where the hurdles start. That's the difference with an intellectual - a guy who has great ideas, which everybody agrees with, but after that, we have to carry out the practical side of it too, and to have the courage to go on the pitch and say 'this is what I believe, and this is what I will do'.
I have a big respect in general for the Dutch school, and Johan Cruyff especially, because let's not forget he is the product of a school in Holland which was around before him. People like Rinus Michels, who influenced his players too, because this is not an isolated way of thinking. Johan Cruyff had it too - that personality, the character to say 'yes, I believe in this game, and I'm strong and brave enough to apply it on the pitch.' That's what I admired.
Who else did you look up to?
How did you decide which ideas you would adopt and from whom? You meet all kind of people that you share ideas with. I was lucky in my life, I travelled my whole life and met many football people. With some of them I had very strong exchanges. They are not especially known in England at all, and if I gave you their names you would not know them.
You want to meet new people so you can share new ideas that reinforce your beliefs. But I always felt – and this is the idea I got from English football – that football is a feast. I always think that the respect for the fans comes when you have the desire as a coach to give them something on a Saturday afternoon that makes them happy. I believe that fans should always be able to wake up on a Saturday morning and their first thought should be 'yes, my team is playing today, it could be great'.
Unfortunately we do not always manage to give them that, but at the least we should have the desire to do that. I also believe that the positive idea of a football club is to have a desire for style. If big clubs don't have that, then I think something is missing. Throughout the history of the game, the big club sides and the big national teams always had that desire.
Whether it is Brazil, or the big teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid. And I think Arsenal has a positive reputation on that front. The big English teams – Liverpool, Man United and so on – always had that as well. It is basically an obligation for you as a coach.
How do you ensure you don't copy someone else's ideas too much? How important is it to remain your own man?
Yes, it's very important. But I also believe you can only have courage in your beliefs and be strong with them if it is something you feel deeply inside you. A manager is somebody who looks inside themselves and thinks 'what do I love to do? What do I want to do?' If what he does is not copied artificially from somebody else, but is what he deeply feels is his right philosophy, then he will have the strength to fight for it and put his head up there, playing the way he wants to.So you can be inspired by others, but after taking all the outside influences, you have to make your own analysis of what you really want.
Are you still being inspired now? Who are your current influences?
Yes, of course. I personally think I am not too stupid, but there are other very intelligent people out there who think a lot about the game, and I always try to learn more everyday. What's quite frustrating for me is that I feel in the last two years, we have moved the game forward in a modern way of managing the team and the club. Maybe we have not been immediately rewarded in the championship, but we feel we are moving the club the right way. We always want to learn and to move forward, together. That's one of the principles of the club. We want to be together but we want to move forward.
If you could go back 30 years, what advice would you give to a young Arsène Wenger? Would he listen?
Look, I believe when I was young if I had one quality, it was that I could listen to people. I always tried to listen when people who were much older talked to me. All the people liked to be with me at the time, maybe because I had a certain respect. I always tried to think to myself 'is this guy intelligent? He looks very intelligent. He's 30 years older than I am, that means he has gone through things I will go through, so what can I learn from him?' I had that kind of attitude 30 years ago. Usually when you are very young you are tempted to see older people as hasbeens, but then afterwards you realise what he told you is true.
"It's usually former players who call me - the players I had when I was 33 are nearly at the end of their career already! I always try to help them, I’m always positive. I think in our job, at the start, the most important thing is to have a positive attitude towards human beings. You have to be an optimist about human nature. Because if you don’t have that, you can quickly become paranoid, no matter how good you are at football or how good your tactical knowledge is"
So I tried to learn all the time. If I look back at the young coach I was, I would say to myself 'are you sure that you want to go through all this again? Are you ready to suffer so much again, because it is the sacrifice of your life.' I started when I was 33 years old, now I'm 66 so that's 33 years of uninterrupted competitive football. That's the only thing I would ask to this little boy, full of ambition and desire.
Do you really want that again?
The answer would be obvious - yes of course! Maybe I was programmed to be like that – I couldn't live without it.
Do you prefer the role of protégé or mentor?
I think I'm of a more generous and less egotistical attitude now than I was when I was at age. Back then I wanted myself to be THE coach, THE guy who is successful. Today of course I still want to be successful, but more for others, more to give the people who love Arsenal what they like, the success. I want to help the players to achieve the best of what they can in their career. At the end of the day we are not responsible for the talent we each have, but we are responsible for what we do with our talent.
The respect I have for people is when you look back and say 'this guy had nothing much more left within him that what he achieved.' I would like that I am the guy today who helps the players to achieve all that they can achieve - to fulfill their potential. That's where the real respect comes from - when you feel people have fulfilled their potential. When you think people have used 60 or 70 per cent of their talent, even when they are very talented, there is something missing there that makes you think 'no my friend, you are wrong.'
Is it easier now for young coaches to learn from colleagues because football's more accessible than it was 30 years ago?
Well I had to fight to get information. Today, you go on the internet and you know every training session in the world. I had to fight, I had to travel overnight sometimes. The battle I had was gaining access to information, which isn’t the case anymore. Maybe everything is quicker in the modern society but on the other there isn’t as much patience as there used to be.
The impatience has grown, as have the demands and the competition level. Today, if you’re a young coach, you’re confronted with all the coaches in the world. I was confronted with just the coaches in my region, so I could develop and get an early chance. That’s not exactly the case anymore. If you come up in England today, next year we will have Conte and Guardiola on top of the managers there already. The access is much more limited today because it’s a worldwide competition.
Did you ever meet any coaches or managers who refused to help you when you were growing up?
Not so much. In fact it’s more the case today I think. At the time I was starting out, people were more happy to share. Life was a bit quieter, slower. Today in our job it’s much more difficult. Everybody protects what he knows. But I personally like to share. I’m a partner in the Leaders Sport Performance Summit, which transcends different sports, where we share our experiences.
There are a few people who talk about the evolution of different sports like baseball, cycling and basketball. We meet once or twice a year and share our experiences. Sometimes it’s easier to share your experiences with people who are not from your own sport. But in the end, I can speak to a baseball coach in the States and he has the same problems I do. It’s about getting the best out of people, being competitive and winning games.
So you find it useful to look at other sports to exchange ideas?
I find it very useful. Sometimes you find that some other sports have developed more in certain areas where your sport is a little bit behind. Other times you find that your sport is ahead of others.
Is it true that you once helped out the France athletics relay team?
Yes, during the Olympics, they asked me to come and speak to their 4x100-metre relay teams - both the men and the women. They are not naturally used to team sport, it’s more individual. I spoke to them about how to work together, how to share a target. If you look at nature, the animals that hunt for survival understand instinctively that together they have more chance to hunt and be successful.
So it’s part of nature and survival to understand that together we are stronger than individuals. There are very few animals that hunt isolated for survival. Most of them hunt in groups. It’s very important to get an instinctive understanding of how you can be efficient together.
You must be inundated with phone calls from young coaches asking for your advice, how do you deal with them all?
It's usually former players who call me - the players I had when I was 33 are nearly at the end of their career already! I always try to help them, I’m always positive. I think in our job, at the start, the most important thing is to have a positive attitude towards human beings. You have to be an optimist about human nature. Because if you don’t have that, you can quickly become paranoid, no matter how good you are at football or how good your tactical knowledge is. It’s very important that you are positive about human nature because you have ups and downs and what supports your positive philosophy is always thinking ‘these guys will do well’.
Have you ever been surprised by a phone call asking for advice?
Yeah, sometimes you have people that you never expect to call. You don’t always have the best relationships with some players because maybe you didn’t pick them, but they have to believe you are honest and that you make honest decisions. Sometimes you’re surprised, yes.
What’s the one piece of advice you always pass on to new coaches?
I always advise them to check the environment they will go into, to check that they have clear contracts where their responsibilities are very clearly defined. This is a job where you need to be very strong. If your contracts are not well done and the definition of your responsibilities are not clear, you can come under bad influences inside the club. Football is different if you are united at a club.
If you are disjointed in the club, you have no chance. So you need to make sure that your environment is right and that you take care of that environment and the people that work with you on a daily basis. Be strong in your beliefs and of course be strong when the disappointments come. Part of this job is to survive disappointments. You cannot make a career without any big disappointments. That’s where you’re tested, when you have to see how well you recover, how quickly you get the team back on track after massive disappointments.
Finally, at the end of your career, will you write all your ideas into a coaching book?
I haven’t decided that yet – I have had many, many offers for books. But yes, one day I would like to sum up what I have learnt about managing human beings. To give some guidance to people with regard to how they can get the best out of others, and how important it is to lead to a club - to find a common way to be efficient and to move a club forward. I would love to do it one day, but at the moment I’m thinking more about the short term.
Copyright 2021 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.