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Arsène Knows

The legendary Arsenal manager’s career always doubled as a commentary on the whole of soccer, which gave it a strange air of nobility even when he wasn’t winning matches. So why not an autobiography in which all the beauty lives in the commentary around the text?

Harrison Freeman

Let me confess up front that whenever I see a sports autobiography with the words “lessons,” “leadership,” “success,” “10 steps,” “keys,” or “in business and in life” in its subtitle, I react by trying as hard as I physically can to hurl myself into a volcano. It’s an instinct of mine; I can’t be reasoned out of it. Write a sports autobiography with the subtitle Some Games I Was in and What They Were Like and yes, good, I’m here to listen; give that same book the subtitle Lessons for Success on the Playing Field … and Beyond, and you’ll find me jogging toward the lava crater with a grim twinkle in my eyes.

Most of the time, the only place I ever see sports autobiographies with the words “lessons,” “success,” etc. in their subtitles is in, like, a Hudson News at the airport, and because there are not many active volcanoes at the airport (I used to think there was one at LAX, but that was just the hellmouth), I have been lucky enough, for the most part, to avoid serious danger. All that happens is that I flee the Hudson News, run to the nearest airport window, press my face against the glass, and direct a gaze of bleak yearning toward the distant mountains. If there are no distant mountains, I direct a gaze of bleak yearning toward Comfort Suites.

That said, I’ve had some close calls. I once glimpsed a copy of Rick Pitino’s Lead to Succeed: 10 Traits of Great Leadership in Business and Life while I was on vacation in Sicily. There was a lot of construction traffic around Mt. Etna that day; that’s the only reason I’m still here to write this. Another time, I saw Beyond Basketball: Coach K’s Keywords for Success lying on a shipboard lounge chair. When I was fished out of the water several hours later, all I could do was stand shivering on deck, muttering about how if I could just reach the bottom of the Marianas Trench, I might find a fissure that led to the molten core of the earth.

You’ll understand, then, that I did not take up Wenger: My Life and Lessons in Red and White, the new autobiography by the legendary former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, with a spirit of deep enthusiasm. I think Wenger is one of the most compelling figures in sports, but there it was, on the bottom third of the cover: the word “lessons,” hovering in mocking boldface. It filled my brain with what a psychologist might term “the sweet siren’s song of total annihilation.” When I opened the jacket copy and read “tools for inspiration and success in work and life,” the sirens plugged in their amps.

I bought the book, obviously. I had to. Wenger is one of the most fascinating soccer managers I’ve ever followed, and if I have any personality programming stronger than “do not read coaching memoirs that sound like they want older H&R Block executives to buy them for younger H&R Block executives as mentee gifts,” it’s “never pass up an opportunity to suffer for Arsenal.” Don’t get me wrong; I’m not an Arsenal fan. I just believe that when life gives you easy chances, you should take them (a belief in which I am the opposite of Arsenal).

Arsène Wenger fascinates me for two reasons, which are strongly related to each other. The first reason is the ambiguity in which he’s seemed to exist for most of the past decade. From one angle, you could argue—I’m being serious—that he’s the most important manager in the modern history of soccer. He’s the figure most responsible for modernizing the biggest sports league in the world. It’s an exaggeration to say that before he arrived at Arsenal in 1996, the Premier League was still lodged in English soccer’s neolithic age of prematch six-packs and long balls to target men and six central defenders named Don on every team, but not as much of an exaggeration as you might think. Wenger, a Frenchman (gasp) who came to England without a high-profile coaching record (double gasp), introduced innovations like nutritional programs and short passes and worldwide scouting networks; he pressed the power button on the hyperglobalized Premier League of the 21st century, and in the process led Arsenal to three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups, a Champions League final, and—most impressively—the legendary undefeated season in 2003-04, the first time a top-flight English team had gone a whole season without a loss since Preston North End in the late 1880s.

On the other hand, three Premier League titles and no European Cups is kind of a thin record when we’re talking about all-time greats, isn’t it? Other managers in Wenger’s own era won far more. You could counter that Wenger’s Arsenal pushed, say, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United to greater heights than it would have reached otherwise, and I think that’s true. Still, most of Wenger’s biggest successes came relatively early in his 22-year run at Arsenal. Once the rest of the league caught up—from around the time of the move from the Highbury to the Emirates Stadium, the crown jewel of Arsenal’s modernizing campaign—the wins came harder. Wenger spent the last decade of his career clinging by his fingernails to the lower Champions League berths while fielding very young teams that often seemed to lack the killer instinct that had defined the Thierry Henry–Dennis Bergkamp–Patrick Vieira sides. He entered genuinely strange territory: unquestionably the greatest Arsenal manager of all time, but no longer trusted by a large portion of the fan base. He was revered by thousands of fans who kind of wanted to see him fired. The club’s board commissioned statues of him while debating whether to let him go. He was a figure of spectacular, revolutionary success who, for what felt like a very long time, was more notable for his perceived failures.

Alex Ferguson would have torn the head off a sheep with his bare hands before he allowed that to happen. José Mourinho would have said something prickly and devastating in a press conference that changed the whole narrative. (Mourinho would also never have stayed at one club for 22 years; not everyone modernizes at the same pace.) But Wenger always projected a higher sense of principle than your run-of-the-mill managerial tyrant-genius, and the second thing I find irresistibly fascinating about him is how that principle manifested itself in the ruthlessly pragmatic world of contemporary soccer, where nihilism is only deplorable if it doesn’t get results. (If it does get results, it becomes one of the 10 Pillars of Life Leadership and costs $8.99 on Kindle.) Take Wenger’s belief that soccer should be beautiful to watch, for example—it’s an idea to which many managers pay lip service, but in their hearts, most managers just want to win. If they can win by playing in Roman turtle formation and cheese-gratering their opponents’ shins, they are only too happy to comply.

Wenger, though? He had a way of looking out sadly after a 1-0 loss to Clodley-upon-Knockface and reminding the press in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger voice that the game was meant to be poetry; and he meant it. He had reached the apex of the Premier League playing a faster, more fluid, more attractive style than anyone else—this is more or less synonymous with “he had Dennis Bergkamp”—and after that, it wasn’t good enough to simply win. He had to win like that. And when it stopped working, when his elfin youth squads of the 2010s started regularly getting asphyxiated by more sophisticated and ruthless defending, the ideal seemed to harden into a mix of stubbornness and high-minded disappointment. He was sad to lose to Mourinho, but more than that, you felt he was sad for what the world had revealed about itself by allowing Mourinho to beat him. A good world would have rewarded beauty. A good world would have cared about intent. A world in which those things weren’t the keys to success (sorry) was a fallen world. One could only look out at it in disappointment, and grieve for its shortcomings.

And yet, if the world is bad, does that mean we should be bad too? No. The only honorable course is to keep giving the best of ourselves and hope it’s somehow enough. It might not be—in fact, we’ve learned that it almost certainly won’t be—but we have to try. And for a good chunk of Wenger’s later career at Arsenal, what trying meant—and this is going to sound like a joke, there’s no way around it, but it caused me real pain at the time; I admired it so much, and I thought I could see so clearly where it was going—what trying meant was playing Nicklas Bendtner.

And Wenger was all of that: a disappointed romantic, a triumphant technocrat, a winner whom everyone mocked. (Remember the puffy coats? He was ahead of his time on that score, too.) There was something about him that defied easy categorization, something that both worked and didn’t work in the role he had chosen. If he’d been other than as he was, he wouldn’t have enjoyed so much success; being no other than as he was, he was doomed to suffer his very specific form of failure. If that was a story that could give me tools for inspiration and success in work and life, I thought, I needed to receive those tools. If it was a story that could be reduced to “lessons,” I needed to know what they were.

Unfortunately, Wenger: My Life and Lessons in Red and White is not the book to make sense of Wenger’s complex legacy. It’s a sports autobiography; probably the less said about it the better. It’s mild, polite, and comfortably unreflective; it reads like a transcript of a long interview with an undemanding journalist, which is probably what it is. You can hear the tape machine whirring as Wenger says things like

Throughout all these years, I have always enjoyed our rivalry with Manchester United.

and

In 2002, alongside my day job, I became acquainted with the work of TV sports commentating and it taught me a lot in unexpected ways.... Being positioned up high and looking down on the matches as an observer and commentator taught me a lot.

Winning made him happy and proud; losing made him sad but still proud; being a father is “a blessing,” delivering a championship is “fantastic.” There’s nothing wrong with any of this; it’s just the way you talk about your life when you are in public and not under any obligation to reflect. There’s some stuff about FIFA that feels like political maneuvering, but I’m not plugged in enough to know what it’s about. There is, thank God, no section on the 12 Podiums of Leadership (Wenger isn’t a college basketball coach, after all). Probably in France, the book was marketed as an unsparing existential meditation, though it’s not that either, and all the in-work-and-life stuff is just a sales pitch to the sorts of Americans who are thought to buy coaching memoirs. Mostly it’s bland but fine, which I’d argue is not much at all like Wenger’s life, but what do I—someone who can’t even find a lava flume on demand—know?

Just when I was about to give up on the whole autobiography as a tool for Wenger studies, though, I noticed something else fascinating. Namely, Wenger was much more interesting during the book’s PR tour than in the book itself. The specific qualities the memoir was missing—reflectiveness, openness, curiosity about the self—suddenly dropped into view when he started chatting with podcast hosts or reminiscing with reporters who weren’t on his staff. “After defeat,” he told an online audience at a Guardian event,

“You never sleep. You have an internal film that goes through your mind. It’s a sense of anger, humiliation, hate.”

He went on: “Every defeat is still a scar on my heart.” He talked to L’Équipe about the depth of his obsession with football: He has to watch at least one match every day. He talked to the Totally Football Show podcast about the sport as an escape from everyday life: “Daily life is difficult for everybody: It’s boring, repetitive, and it’s a fight, every day. Football gets you out of your daily boring life.”

In a way, this was the most Arsène Wenger of all possible approaches to authorship: disappointing book, wonderfully interesting press tour. Much more than with most managers, his career always doubled as a commentary on the whole sport, which gave it a strange air of nobility even when he wasn’t winning matches. Here is where the game falls short; the game should be like this. So why not a book in which all the beauty lives in the commentary around the text? That’s not to say Arsenal didn’t play brilliant soccer under Wenger, because more often than not, it did. But there was always more going on than whatever you saw on the surface. Nothing is quite as simple as it seems; that may be the truest lesson of all.