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"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."

Vince Lombardi

My life in red and white

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The autobiography of Arsene Wenger, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 2020. ISBN 9781474618243

Arsène was manager of Arsenal 1996-2018, and in charge of 1,235 competitive games – at the end of the book there are 55 pages of statistics and facts about his time at Arsenal. The book’s title, by the way, acknowledges the strange fact that every team he has managed throughout his career played in red and white!

He comes across as obsessive, referring to managing Arsenal as his whole life, his passion and his constant preoccupation, and describes living ‘a monastic life devoted to football’. He also describes it, however, as ‘A life chosen with passion, perhaps also sometimes with a bit of madness and some sacrifices. Arsenal was a matter of life and death to me.’ Acknowledging it was not easy for his wife to live ‘with a man who was mad about his profession, who made football his religion’, he admits that he lived in London, one of the world’s great cities, but never saw anything but his house, the Arsenal training ground and the stadium. One example of his obsessive nature was meeting the head groundsman every day to check the state of the pitch for the next game.

In England, he was the first manager to try and measure players’ physical performance levels, pioneering evaluation techniques with ProZone and other companies, things that all clubs now use routinely. For the Arsenal players, the real changes he brought included a different approach to coaching methods with more regular sessions, eating meals together, lessons on nutrition and muscle-strengthening exercises. He does, however, sadly, dispel one myth: ‘I supposedly made the players eat broccoli morning, noon and night. It was not true, especially as I’m not all that keen on broccoli.’ He does refer to the importance of ‘invisible training – that is, a holistic approach to fitness lifestyle, including nutrition, sleep, stretching, massage, etc.’

Some of his insights into coaching and player assessment and development are fascinating, for example: ‘If football can be summed up as ball reception, decision making and the quality of the performance, we realized that the factor that makes the difference between players is the ability to take in information. In the Premier League, a good player takes in around four to six pieces of information in the ten seconds prior to receiving the ball, and the very good player takes in eight to ten pieces of information.’

Wenger talks about his Roman Catholic upbringing, which gave him a clear sense of morality. He recalls at the age of six watching a game, prayer book in hand, praying for a win! He describes Glenn Hoddle as ‘one of the few players I’ve known to have a religious faith’, writing elsewhere that football was his only religion and that it should be the same for every player. Towards the end of the book there is a curious passage: ‘I often imagine the first words I will exchange with God when I die. He will ask me what I did with my life, what meaning I gave it. I’ll tell him I tried to win football matches! ‘That’s all?’ he’ll probably ask, disappointed. I’ll try to convince him that winning matches is harder than you might think, and that football is important to millions of people’s lives, that it creates moments for sharing, moments of joy and great sadness, too.’

The book gives a unique insight into a legend of English football, a man for whom ‘a day without a football match seems empty’.

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