This story first appeared in the June 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
With just 26 days between the Premier League season finishing and this summer’s European Championship kicking off, Arsène Wenger is set for a short summer break.
While some would enjoy nothing more than spending the off season relaxing on a beach, the Arsenal manager is a lover of major tournaments, having worked at the last six as a co-commentator for French television station, TF1.
And with Arsenal players representing no fewer than seven nations at Euro 2016, he will have extra reason to keep a close eye on events in France during June and July.
“I’m looking forward to it because it’s in my country, and for the first time I can watch a big competition without travelling too much,” he tells the Arsenal Magazine with a smile.
“I believe as a manager who works at the top, you need to be at the big competitions. First of all to follow your players and sometimes support them as well, and secondly you cannot ignore these types of competitions.
“For me it’s interesting to see who will catch the form and the right balance. Who will have the mental strengths and confidence to be a major asset at this European Championship? It’s interesting to observe from the outside how the managers will handle these problems. It’s quite interesting for me both from a personal point of view and especially on the football side.”
Arsène has followed every European Championship since its inception in 1960. Back then, only four teams – the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and France (who also hosted the competition in that year) – competed.
In fact, the first five tournaments started at the semi-final stage, before it was increased to eight teams between 1980 and 1992. The boss has fond memories of Euro 96 too – the first time 16 teams took part at a European Championship.
“I liked it in England, I liked it in Belgium and Holland in 2000 too – that was a magnificent European Championship, as was Euro 1996,” he says. “I won’t talk about 1984 because most of our audience is too young to remember that one.
"That was the first time that France won it and was a period of them having players like Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, Luis Fernandez. They were an exceptional team and actually played even better at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. But in 1984, they were very good. It was a very good team.”
With the tournament extended to 24 teams from this year onwards, some critics have claimed that the overall quality of the competition will suffer. “I think increasing the number of teams in the European Championship is questionable and the same goes for the qualifying tournament,” Germany coach Joachim Low remarked in 2014. It reduces the sporting value of not only individual matches but also of the entire tournament.”
England also opposed the expansion though, while still UEFA president, Platini countered by arguing “the decision was taken by the vast majority [of members]. Two or three associations – England, Germany, the big ones basically – weren’t in favour, but of the 54, 51 actually supported the tournament”.
Then-UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino also defended the expansion in 2014, explaining that extra teams have been added “to inject the virus of football in the whole of Europe”. Wenger, however, has in the past voiced concerns over an increase in competing nations having a negative impact on the early stages of the competition.
“I believe the first rounds are more of an exposure rather than real competition,” Arsène explains. “Increasing the number of teams has a double negative impact.
"Firstly, the qualifiers become a bit useless as you have 24 teams that qualify out of 53, so almost one out of two. The Euros have always been a bit more interesting than the World Cup for me, because the standard is more level than at the World Cup. At the World Cup, you sometimes have big differences between countries, which is not the case in Europe anymore.
“You think there are six groups of four and the first two qualify, as well as the four best third-placed teams. That means 16 teams qualify out of 24. So you would say there is no suspense there. The competition will really start after the first round. I believe the group stage will just be an observation to see who has a good chance to win it and to see who is in the best form.”
That could be France, who bookmakers have installed as 3/1 favourites to win Euro 2016. Les Bleus have an excellent record when holding major tournaments, having won as hosts in 1984 and 1998. Arsène believes home advantage will become increasingly important for Didier Deschamps’ team as the competition goes on.
“It can be a break and a handicap, because of the huge pressure that is dictated today by the expectation level of the country and of the media,” he says. “I believe it can be a handicap until you get to the level that is expected from people.
"After, it becomes a massive plus. If you analyse England, France, Germany – they have won competitions at home. France have only won major tournaments three times, and two of those have been at home. There’s a history there that is in favour of France. I believe that France has a big offensive potential and with them playing at home, they will be a serious candidate.”
Deschamps’ young team impressed while preparing for this summer’s tournament, winning in Portugal and the Netherlands, and also beating Germany at the Stade de France last November – a match overshadowed by the Paris terrorist attacks. The hosts have been drawn in Group A alongside Albania, Switzerland and Romania. World champions Germany face Poland, Ukraine and Northern Ireland in Group C, while Spain – European Championship holders having lifted the rophy in both 2008 and 2012 – are in a tough-looking Group D, with the Czech Republic, Croatia and Turkey.
So which nations is the boss expecting to challenge? “Nobody speaks too much about Belgium or Croatia. But if you look at the Croatian squad, you see Modric, Rakitic, Lovren, Perisic, Mandzukic, Srna. It’s absolutely amazing and they can be a favourite, just like Belgium, who have De Bruyne, Hazard and all the other Belgians who play in England. I hope that England will be a positive surprise.
"In France, you could have players like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann who could turn up"
“For me, Croatia could be the surprise package, but it’s very difficult to predict. You could say a complete surprise in the qualifiers were Iceland, because they finished top of a very, very difficult group. Then there’s Turkey, who only just qualified, but in the end could have an impact. You have Slovakia and the Czech Republic, who could be a surprise too, so you never know.”
Arsène signed both Alexis Sanchez and David Ospina after watching them at the 2014 World Cup. But would the Arsenal manager ever buy a player based on the strength of one strong tournament?
“No, I wouldn’t. Unless I’ve known him before, go to the tournament and see him. You have two kinds of people at these tournaments – some have played 60 games during the season, and some have played 15, maybe due to injuries. You have to be very cautious with that.
“We analyse every game in Europe now. We spoke about 1984, then you discovered players that had big tournaments. But that has gone now. It’s difficult to find surprise players because of the strength of scouting. It’s equally hard to forecast who could be a star. Sometimes it can be a guy who has less than 60 games in his legs. At past tournaments we’ve had many surprises.
“Let’s not forget that in Portugal at Euro 2004, the player of the tournament was Theodoris Zagorakis, who had played at Leicester before. That shows you that sometimes it’s players that have just arrived at a good moment in form. In France, you could have players like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann who could turn up.
"In England, it’s also difficult to predict, but players like Daniel Sturridge, who has not had a long season, could do well. There’s Jack Wilshere too, for example. I hope all the Arsenal players have a big impact.”
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