Frenchman heading the way of all great leaders – the scrap heap


I wonder if Arsène Wenger’s problem is that, for all the changes he has brought to Arsenal and English football, he is not quite the revolutionary he has been made out to be. Indeed, his likely demise is due to the fact that he is more like a great politician who, having surrounded himself by a coterie of advisers, cannot fathom how the world round him has changed.

Whatever happens to Wenger, whether this proves his last season in England, he will always be remembered as one of the managers who shaped the Premiership. Figures will show Sir Alex Ferguson miles ahead, but Wenger changed a club: its ethos, its playing style and how it was perceived by the rest of football. Ferguson can be said to have continued in the tradition of Manchester United: if you score four, we will score five. Wenger took charge of a team that had often won, but its appeal did not extend beyond the faithful. Now, even in these barren years, they have played the best football seen in this country.

The all too familiar complaint about Wenger is that he will not spend money. Surely, goes up the cry, why does he not dip into the pot of £50 million the club has?

Arsenal have always said that there is money to spend, but it is up to the manager to spend it. One of the problems with this argument is that in football, it is not how much you spend, but who you spend it on. Wenger, for all his brilliance, is unlikely to get another Patrick Vieira, who was always the most influential player in his team and has proved irreplaceable.

I wonder if this debate about him has not got stuck in a familiar groove. Yes, the problem is he has not got the right replacements. But is there not another problem? That Wenger, since his arrival, has stuck to the same backroom team and made few, if any, changes.

Look at Ferguson. In his time at United, as he has fashioned, arguably, five teams, he has also constantly changed his back room staff, having different No. 2s and various other coaches.

Now in football, that does not happen very often. The insecurity of the game makes managers want to protect their own backs. This makes the manager gather round them a group of people they can trust. After all, they know they can never trust the management. Even managers doing well can get sacked, as Lee Clark of Huddersfield knows only too well. This team, usually the No. 2 and various other coaches, form a happy band that follows the manager wherever he goes.

But Ferguson has been bold enough, and secure enough in himself, to change his team. His thinking is he needs fresh faces, the players need fresh voices and such constant renewal prevents a team from going stale.

Wenger, in contrast, has stuck to Pat Rice, who he inherited, and Boro Primorac, who he brought to Highbury a few months after Wenger, himself, arrived. And by showing himself to be so conservative, Wenger has been more like the sort of politician leaders who, having tasted success with his team, cannot contemplate change.

Arsene Wenger has retained Pat Rice as his assistant since he arrived at Arsenal. Image courtesy of PlayUp

In political life, a leader nearly always comes to power surrounded by a small coterie of advisers. As the years go by, this staff remains the same and when a problem arises the politician hunkers down only listening to this coterie. The result is he or she gets more isolated from the real world and there is a mighty fall. It has happened with many a leader, not least Mrs Thatcher.

If this is what is happening to Wenger, then it is hard to see how he can escape the fate suffered by political leaders including the great Mrs T. And in that case, we may have to revise our views about Wenger the revolutionary. You would expect Ferguson to be the more traditional in his methods and Wenger to live up to his billing as the professor and be revolutionary, not just in the selection of his players, but also the rotation of his backroom staff. Instead, the self-taught man from Gorbals has proved more of a real revolutionary. Unlike Wenger, he has understood that if you want renewal in a football club, you must be bold enough to start with your own team.


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