Arsene Wenger might have been the one who took Arsenal away from their home of Highbury but the man himself never quite left for the Emirates Stadium. His heart still lies on Avenell Road.
It is one of numerous contradictions that are inevitable when a man spends 22 years in one job. Progress dictated that 38,000 seats would never satisfy a club who aspire to rank among Europe’s most prestigious, no matter the stunning Art Deco edifice that housed them.
The Emirates is Wenger’s legacy in glass and concrete. On its opening in 2006 it was an ultra-modern stadium for an ultra-modern club, one whose manager had revolutionized the sport in England by robbing his players of their Mars bars and lagers. When Wenger talks about it you sense that he sees it as his bequeathment to the club; indeed when he describes it as the stadium he built you can almost believe that he has tricked his memory into remembering himself on the construction site, digging out the foundations himself.
Yet while his pride in the self-financed move to Ashburton Grove is significant the new stadium never quite seems to connect with him at the same deep level as Highbury. It’s clear when reading Wenger: My Life and Lessons in Red and White, available now from publishers Chronicle Prism that Highbury maintains a special place in Wenger’s heart. Perhaps there is nothing more to that than the reality that it was in that ground that he lifted his three Premier League titles. There has been silverware aplenty in the 14 years since the move but it has been Wembley rather than the Emirates that has been the scene of those triumphs.
Even after Arsenal left Highbury it could have been Wenger’s home. The four stands were converted into several hundred flats with what was once the pitch serving as communal gardens. Inevitably many were snapped up by diehard Gooners, who could have found themselves with a quite remarkable neighbor.
“I was [considering buying a flat], but I was thinking, no, maybe it’s not the best thing to do it, to invest at the moment we are building it,” Wenger tells CBS Sports in an exclusive interview. “I didn’t because, honestly, I didn’t want to be accused of doing something to take advantage of the club,
“During my whole period, I didn’t use the credit card of Arsenal even to invite agents or players, I paid for myself, you know, because I knew that was a very sensitive period and it starts with leaders.
“But it’s true that I have a strange relationship with Highbury, maybe because you feel somewhere when you walked in, you’re part of the history and you have on your shoulders the responsibility to continue that history of the club, and where you feel a soul in every part of every corner.
“It is something of special relationship with the stadium. And it shows as well you know, when you drove down Avenell Road, you walked out through the supporters. Today you drive in the stadium, you don’t see anybody. The distances have improved between people. The human warmth has gone a little bit more. It’s all that bit more separated.”
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On the first occasion he entered those marble halls of Highbury Wenger said he knew there was something unique about Arsenal even if he could never have imagined that it would be well over two decades before he departed the club.
When he left, so, it seemed, did the last one the great managerial giants who tied themselves to one club for a generation, who did not feel the need to move from one to another and who relished the chance to reform their sides under different circumstances. Wenger himself would note that he relished managing with, in financial terms, one hand tied behind his back when Arsenal had to repay the bank loans that financed the stadium.
There are certainly those who seem willing to set deeper roots in England, Jurgen Klopp will have reigned for nine years if he reaches the end of his current Liverpool contract and in the days before the interview Pep Guardiola has just committed to a sixth and seventh year at the Manchester City helm. Both, Wenger says, are “intelligent managers who are heads of clubs who have financial potential to buy the best players in Europe at the moment”. Why, he seems to be implying, would they want to go anywhere else?
There was a time when Arsenal could not offer him that but, as he is not afraid to note on more than one occasion in his book, there were those such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich who were willing to offer him what Guardiola and Klopp have. Wenger has no regrets over staying loyal.
“Every manager works with his own personality,” he says. “And I was as well the longest serving manager ever in Monaco, which people forget, you know. Maybe it’s down to me.
“I believe as well, I have a kind of personality that likes to belong to something that he believes is bigger than him. And an organization as well, that I believe shares my values and my beliefs. That was for a long time the case at Arsenal. That’s why I stayed for a long time.”
Those values reflected on through generations at Arsenal. It was notable throughout his time at the club that he did not only produce and unearth players of exceptional talent but many who found the same deep-seated connection to the club that Wenger himself had.
Three of those are now running the club’s footballing operations almost in their entirety. Technical director Edu, academy chief Per Mertesacker and manager Mikel Arteta are the triumvirate that define the footballing direction of the club.
Discussing the latter duo, key dressing room figures during his final spell of great success at the club that brought three FA Cups in four years, Wenger is keen to note that they are just two of “many, many” former protegees who could have taken on his mantle.
“They were focused and motivated and after that they have to make their career. It’s not done yet, you know, they’ve just started.
“They are in a position where they can, I think, represent the Arsenal culture, the way to behave, the way to educate people, the way to play football.
“I think they have a certain ethical aspect in the way they approach their job. They are focused, they have a desire to improve internally and that’s good, a good basis. They are intelligent.”
There certainly does seem to be a sense in which Arteta and Mertesacker, in their playing days, arrived at Arsenal just when they were needed, the aftermath of an 8-2 defeat to Manchester United that ranked among the most bruising moments in Wenger’s reign. It is perhaps no wonder that he leaves it out of a book that is focused on the broad swathe of his career rather than raking over old wounds from the Ashley Cole transfer to that defeat at Old Trafford.
Yet Wenger rejects the suggestion that that one loss set in motion any sweeping changes at Arsenal. “Big results never have big meaning,” he insists, recalling with remarkable clarity the mitigating circumstances behind that game: a string of injuries, an energy-sapping but successful win away to Udinese that extended a run of successfully qualifying for the Champions League that would reach 19 years.
Meanwhile, he notes of this season that “Liverpool lost already 7-2 at Aston Villa, and nobody made a fuss of it.” That result has typified a Premier League season in which the mid-ranking teams have enjoyed remarkable success against the ‘Big Six’, while his own former club has already suffered losses at the hands of Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City.
Might this be a sign of a Premier League with deeper quality than ever before? “I don’t think the Premier League is better now than it was 10 years ago.
“If you look at the Manchester United team or the Chelsea team 10 years ago, they had top quality players. You know what people forget when we played the Invincible season, Man United was Cristiano Ronaldo, [Ruud] Van Nistelrooy, [Paul] Scholes, [Ryan] Giggs. They had an exceptional team you know, so the competition was always of a very high level.
“After Chelsea had Drogba, Lampard, Robben, all these players. I don’t believe for a second that that has changed. In England in the last 15 years you had the best players in the world.
“As well 15 years ago, they had Jack Grealishes at Aston Villa, they had top level players in the clubs.”
He seems to be suggesting then that there ought to be no reason why less is expected of Arteta, whose Arsenal side are currently in 14th after 10 games of the season, than was demanded of him. Certainly the notion that time is what the manager needs is one that he swiftly dismisses.
“I don’t believe in patience in football, you know, you have three months to have an impact when you arrive somewhere,” Wenger says. “And if I look at my clubs everywhere I arrived, it didn’t take me three years to have an influence.
“That’s an idea that’s floating around but it never works that way. You have an influence at the start, or you never have one.
“I think [he has had that influence]. But I am not at the club. After it’s the way the team plays and the games you win or you lose, you know, it’s simple.
“It’s about results. It’s as simple as that.”
Those results have not been the same since Wenger left, though to what extent he shares the blame for what came in the years after he left will forever be debated by supporters and pundits alike.
He will do so himself, throughout his career he says he questioned his ability to get the most out of a collection of players.
“The basic job of a manager is to take the best out of the potential of a team. I think you never know, did you take the maximum out of your team? When you win the championship without losing a game you can say yes, because there’s not room to do much better.
“I think I took the maximum out of a team later on, many times, but we had not the same potential. I can understand [when supporters get unhappy]… they want to win the championship and the cup and the Champions League which I can understand. Overall I would say today maybe they realized that kind of consistency is not easy.”
It was perhaps appropriate that when Wenger appeared on Desert Island Discs, a radio show in the UK in where guests are invited to reflect on their life and select particular pieces of music they would want if they found themselves isolated from the world, he chose My Way performed by Frank Sinatra. Certainly he has had a few regrets. And yet when he comes to reflect on his great love story with Arsenal there is no room for doubt, no desire to take back some of the time he gave to the club.
“I’m not scared to say I dedicated my life to that because you need to find the meaning in your life. And football was the meaning of my life.
“I know it can sound stupid. And the dedication I had for my club can sound stupid as well. But I’m like that.
“So I couldn’t and maybe even didn’t try to change because if happiness is to lead the life that you love, I must say I was very happy.”