My Life in Red and White is a quiet account of how Arsene Wenger gathered his principles

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When it eventually came, the world was no longer cut out for an Arsene Wenger autobiography.

It doesn’t know what to do any more with a book that fails to ‘lift the lid’ or ‘spill the beans’ or even to ‘take aim at’.

This is not an ‘explosive trawl’ or a ‘revealing account’ or a ‘candid tell-all’. There is little in the way of hitting out, or reopening wounds, or prolonging feuds.

A book on a career this long could have powered the world’s clickbait mills for months.

Yet it doesn’t even tick the obvious boxes on the Wenger for Dummies checklist? Did he see the incident? Why did Arsenal try to walk it in? What about Stoke and those throw-ins? Why didn’t he sign better defenders? Isn’t Mourinho some tulip?

There isn’t a single mention of Mourinho — presumably a subtle ankle tap for a rival whose preoccupation with Wenger will have drawn him straight to the index.

So the world is perplexed by a shortage of the currency that now gives these publications value — ‘controvassy’.

The London Times’ review was ‘left frustrated’ and ‘wanted more’. Even Nick Hornby, the Gunner laureate, who “cannot think of another adult male who so directly improved the quality of my life”, says My Life in Red and White leaves unanswered “a million questions that Arsenal fans would want Wenger to answer”.

Instead, this is a quiet account of how Wenger gathered the principles that built “the child who dreamed about football” into a football man who “fulfilled my dreams, even those I must have carried within me without daring to express them”.

Always in red and white, wherever he went. At Cannes, he became preoccupied by ‘invisible training’, unlocking progress using “nutrition, sleep, stretching, massage as well as psychological support and motivation”.

At Nancy, he drove as far as Munich to source cheap footballs at a trade fair. “I had great freedom in my work, and in exchange I behaved as if the club belonged to me.”

In Monaco, he became wary of paralysis by analysis. “If you exaggerate the opposition’s qualities, you increase your players’ fear and the risk that they will hide away.”

And in Japan, away from a media he could understand, he disconnected from “the constant comments, advice, criticism and praise” and returned “to the essence of our profession”.

That essence is distilled in a quote that opens the book, from André Malraux’s The Temptation of the West:

To try to make men aware of the greatness they do not know they have in themselves.
He identifies a common trait in some of his best Arsenal players — Henry, Van Persie, Fabregas. “A kind of dissatisfaction within oneself, which is often a kind of tension, enables people to move up to the next level.”

Of Fabregas he says: “He remembered only the things he had done badly, but that is often the mark of great players, and the price to pay for being great.”

He was never likely to turn now on players he had always protected, is still protecting, in the case of Ozil: “An artist who feels football through all the pores of his skin and his soul. He needs to be constantly encouraged.”

The moment Wenger dislocated 800km from Alsace, to take a job as assistant coach at Cannes, he began to process his experiences into lessons.

“Experiencing that loneliness so completely also helped me to understand the state of mind of a player who arrives at a club and in a town he doesn’t know at all. With that in mind, I have always allowed a player time — at least six months — to get his bearings, to feel at home, and to concentrate on the game.”

That patience bore richest fruit with George Weah, “who made a pitiful impression” at early Monaco training sessions, having arrived from Africa.

Everyone thought him hopeless, clumsy. He only spoke English and was very shy.
Wenger took him running.

“We exercised together, just the two of us. Training makes men grow, and with him I could feel it at once; he gradually earned the respect of the others.”

Seven years later, when Weah collected his Ballon d’Or, he handed it to Wenger.

The book carries some technical insight. Stephen Kenny, having just seen so many wrong decisions taken, will have fresh appreciation of the way he grades quality.

“In the Premier League, the 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.”

On passing, he is more elegiac: “(It’s) communicating with another person, it’s being in the service of another person. It’s crucial. It’s an act of intelligence and generosity. What I call technical empathy.”

When Alex Ferguson released a book upon retirement, he couldn’t resist settling a few old scores with former players. Some would say that underlined a ruthlessness which eventually saw Fergie win their battle.

Wenger notes that Ferguson “exerted a kind of subconscious pressure on everyone including the referees”, though concedes “his authority was primarily connected to the exceptional quality of the team”.

And even 16 years after the record unbeaten sequence ended in game 50 at Old Trafford, Wenger gives that afternoon a weight it shouldn’t really have had.

“It was a heavy blow for me and the team. We knew that the good times were over; that unique moment, the time without fear, had passed, and we knew it would be hard to recapture that state of grace.”

That loss marked the end of the triumphant phase of his Arsenal career. Though he maintains pride in those ‘fourth-place trophies’ that were much sneered at, even if he was working under a lowered ceiling.

“We were now entering a period when players were leaving between 22 and 25 years old. It was as if we were being cut down before the harvest.”

He admires Ferguson’s ability to delegate. And while falling short of accepting his own shortcomings in that area, he admits to feeling overwhelmed by the corporatisation of football.

At Cannes, he signed his first player, Lamine N’Diaye, coming down on the motorway, having convened for a kickabout in a car park to see what he could do.

Arsenal swelled from 70 to 700 staff, Gunnersauras included, under his watch. Unwieldy, for someone who still behaved as if he owned the place.

“When you are in charge of so many things, you feel you’re always running to keep up and you’re very dissatisfied.”

There is obvious sadness at how it ended.

“Arsenal was a matter of life and death to me, and without it there were some very lonely, very painful moments.”

But also a sense he has already gathered a different perspective.

He recalls when, aged 14, he almost died of a mystery fever, which eventually broke and appeared to trigger the growth spurt that stretched him to 6’3’’.

“After that, I came to believe that I could survive anything.”

He became invincible, though latterly he has taken to imagining his first conversation with God, and how to justify devoting a life to trying to win football matches.

He admits to regret at the cost, at “not having been present enough sometimes for (daughter) Léa, and not having had more children”.

And we hear he has begun to have different dreams, beyond players and matches. Dreams that have brought him full circle, well away from the need to settle scores for cheap clicks.

“After the death of my sister, my brother Guy died a few months ago.

“He was my big brother. He was five years older than me. He played football before I did, and it was with him that I first played: in our bedroom above our parents’ bistro, in the streets of our village and in the Duttlenheim football club.

“They are dreams of when we were starting out, the moments on which everything hinged, when I was the youngest but very determined. I would fight to play with my brother and his friends.

“They are dreams of childhood, in an Alsace that still feels like home to me, an Alsace that shaped my personality. They are dreams in which the only language I hear spoken is the Alsatian German dialect. They are dreams that take me back to where it all began.”

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