I happened to speak recently with a relatively successful young manager, one who spends a lot of time in education programs at bigger clubs. He was in Italy, Spain, Germany, England and picked the brain of many young and older managers. He told me that he wasn’t particularly impressed with Arsène Wenger’s methods, saying that he rarely gives instructions to his players.
Wenger often talks about how he doesn’t like to give orders, and prefers instead to put the players in environments that are intended to make them come to conclusions themselves (Unlike Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, who used to stop training all the time and guide their players).
Wenger’s favorite training-drill is having his players play five-a-side without interrupting. Wenger even explained: “Five-a-side confronts the player with constant decision-making”, he told FourFourTwo. “When you receive the ball, you are faced with dozens of options. Your brain acts like a computer: It realizes it has been faced with this situation before and tries to come up with the right answer.”
Basically, his main goal in training is developing a player’s instinct and thought process. He wants his guys to think for themselves, and reach a conclusion about what would be the best thing to do next.
In that sense, he is like a great guru or a Sensei – football’s Mr. Miyagi. However, this is why a lot of newcomers need a longer period of time to settle in to Arsenal’s style of play. Wenger’s style of coaching is the reason why smarter players, like Santi Cazorla for example, instantly fit in. On the other hand, that’s the main reason why players who may be not-so-smart don’t always appear to know what their next move is, even after several years with the club. Don’t believe me? Just look at Gervinho or Theo Walcott.
During Arsenal’s best seasons with Wenger, the squad was filled with smart, skilled players that (mostly) had a lot of experience. However, during the past few seasons, Wenger did not purchase high-profile, expensive players. His reasons may be financial or ideological, but the bottom line is that he put his focus on players who had a “potential to be great”, and the club failed to win.
Since 2005 Arsenal didn’t win a major title, and was mostly irrelevant in domestic and European competition. That’s despite the fact that The Gunners are one of the top 6 clubs in the world in terms of financial income. During that time, Wenger chose to field a squad filled with “potential stars” – players who aren’t world-class, but have the potential to reach that level.
The more experienced stars were no longer flocking to Arsenal like they used to, choosing instead to join Chelsea, Manchester City and other high-profile clubs. The players that were developed in Arsenal’s training grounds went on to receive bigger paychecks from other clubs, when they realised that Arsenal just couldn’t be a winner with Wenger running the show*.
* Cesc Fabregas: “At times at Arsenal, there was a feeling of: ‘if we win, great. If not, well, we’re very young… No pasa nada’ (everything’s fine)”
Wenger’s liberal style of coaching led to the acceleration of a process that Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”. This theory describes the way in which capitalist economic development arises out of the destruction of some prior economic order, mainly due to innovation and creativity.
For example, cassette-tape players were replaced by CD players. MP3 players deemed the CD players obsolete, only to be replaced by smartphones. Using this example, Arsenal is still a Walkman, while Manchester City and Chelsea are iPods. In short, Arsenal used to be innovative.
Wenger’s Arsenal were seen as the creative, rising super-power in the late 90′s and early 2000′s, but the change in England’s financial climate made it difficult for them to maintain their best players. The fact that scouting is a lot easier now than it used to be, means that
Arsenal lost some of its edge over the smaller clubs in the Premier League, and that makes finding cheap top-level players a lot harder than it was back then.
Take Freddie Ljungberg for example: Back then, Arsenal was able to sign him for next to nothing, simply because Wenger was pretty much the only one to send scouts to Sweden. Today, a player in his standards would probably have been snagged by Everton or Swansea.
Wenger used to have some of the best players in the world in his squad. These players would usually just do the right thing on instinct alone, and Wenger’s innovative style of coaching gave them the freedom to do just that. These days, Arsenal cannot afford the best players in the world and Wenger is no longer an innovator. Innovation could be seen in different places. For example, look at Borussia Dortmund, the Bundesliga champions, who are now looking like a force to be reckoned with in the Champions League despite having a budget similar to Sunderland or Fulham.
Wenger said that “sometimes people try and destroy your work”, after losing key players, ones that he nurtured and developed, to clubs with bigger pockets. The fact is that in today’s world, nobody will defend you if someone creates a better product than you. Just ask Sony – the public left their music players for dead in favor of Apple’s sleek products.
Football is no different.
Arsenal can no longer make bargain deals to bring top players (how much do you think Thierry Henry would have cost today?), and they have to rely on their youngsters and “stars” who are not good enough. They may not cost as much, but they need much more time to get to know the system. This is why Wenger always says that his team has “great potential”, and never says that they’re a great team.
Arsenal’s board of directors claims that when Financial Fair Play takes effect, they will be able to compete for the services of the world’s best players. However, one must wonder whether the great players would really want to join a club that has seen its reputation eroded by years of non-competitiveness.
Arsène Wenger’s dominance came to a halt when José Mourinho invaded Britain. His new concept of coaching, along with Roman Abramovich’s bank account, created a new super-power in Chelsea. They leapfrogged over Arsenal, and inspired a new generation of managers.
José Mourinho says that “the biggest lie in football” is the notion that players need time to gel. After witnessing some of his training sessions and attending one of his lectures, it’s plain to see that his method of training is completely different to that of Wenger – he tells his players exactly what to do and how to do it.
The Special One uses a method developed by Vitor Frade, a professor in Porto’s sports university. This method is called “tactical periodization”, and it claims that the best way to train players and fulfill their potential is to teach the player how to react to every situation.
The method is based around the 4 different moments in football: “offensive organization”, “defensive organization”, “transition from offense to defence” and “transition from defense to offense”. It also takes the 4 key physical elements into account – players
should be trained physically, technically, tactically and psychologically.
The method aims to train every player how to react instinctively to every possible situation in football. According to this method, a good player is one that makes the best possible decision in every scenario that happens during the game. Every reaction should take tactics into account, while also taking the opponent’s abilities into consideration.
Every game Mourinho prepares his players according to these questions:
A. What are we doing when we have the ball against X?
B. What are we doing when we don’t have the ball against X?
C. What are we doing when the ball is in transition from defence to attack against X?
D. What are we doing when the ball is in transition from attack to defence against X?
Unlike Wenger, Mourinho puts his players into ever-changing situations in training so they identify the changes and learn how to react. As Joe Cole of Chelsea said, “You learn things in every one of his training sessions and don’t even know it!”.
His directions during training may vary depending on the next opponent, but the questions stay the same. Every player also receives a DVD of the opponent he is most likely to face during the game. By the way – Wenger rarely addresses his next opponent during
Mourinho’s method is mechanical, intricate and difficult to properly exercise. He asks his players to fully focus on winning 24/7. That’s maybe the reason why he never lasts too long at the same club – It’s too intensive. While Wenger is much more easy-going and relaxed, Mourinho’s method is proven to be more effective in the last decade, and that’s why many managers decided to use it, at least partially.
The method may also be one of the reasons why Mourinho usually prefers to work with established players rather than youngsters.
Arsène Wenger is definitely not the same kind of coach Mourinho is. Wenger’s vision and ability to nurture young talent is probably second to none in the game. His style of coaching, however, is probably no longer suitable for a high-profile team. Players, especially those who grew up in academies, need to be told what to do and how to do it. They also need to be instructed on where to combine, use their creativity and bring their skill into effect. Especially during games – when they seem to be stuck with ideas from the training ground and yearn for a new idea from their coach.
Celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan always says that ”everybody needs an Alpha Dog”. Professional footballers also need an alpha dog – not a guru, who lets them reach far-fetching solutions and conclusions by themselves.
According to the French media, Wenger recently received an offer from PSG to become its sporting director. This might be the perfect role for him. Arsenal would be wise to give him this exact role and give the reigns to a younger, more up-to-date coach.
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