The sight of Arsène Wenger with a smile on his face is a welcome one.
It was tough enough seeing the former Arsenal manager visibly pained in the dugout as his team failed to hit the desired heights, but what we didn’t know a year ago was that not seeing him in the public eye at all would be even tougher.
Wenger’s 22 years in the English game made him part of the furniture, not just for Arsenal fans but for supporters of all the league’s clubs, and his year-long absence has seen the conversation move from “I hope we see him back in management soon” to “I hope he’s happy”, as if he’s an old friend or family member who you haven’t heard from for a little while.
It’s a relief, then, to see the Frenchman in good spirits as he meets the waiting media at a central London hotel, joking about the book he has been putting off writing (“I’m coming slowly to the conclusion that at some stage I have to do it”) and joking that the one thing he misses about management is getting to see the same familiar faces every week.
Wenger has been looking after himself, though, regularly going for 10k runs and spending time ensuring he has a work-life balance which was sometimes missing during his tenure in North London.
“It was not so difficult [to reinvent myself], because I think in life you have competition with others and competition with yourself, and my toughest one was with myself,” he says.
“I neglected a lot, all the people around me, so I have a bit more time. I do different things, I’m less intense, but have a better perspective of what’s going on.”
Wenger speaks about the “heat” of Premier League management, with the pressure having made it hard for him to focus on anything other than his work, and the longer he spends away from the game – whether that’s speaking at conferences, doing charity work or even just looking after his mind and body – the more he wonders whether he needs to return.
“I thought ‘do I go straight into that heat again. You know once you are in there it’s nothing else, so I thought let’s at least take a bit of time, I thought okay two months, then three months, then four months, and now I have a problem to go in again.
“I will get back into football, for sure, but in what position I don’t know. The appetite is still there, the desire is still there, but I know what kind of life I have in front of me… I have to decide.”
In Wenger’s two decades in charge of Arsenal, he oversaw more than 1,200 games, and that’s not the sort of thing you can leave behind entirely when you step away from the game.
Even without the dramatic highs of the Invincibles season (“an immaculate team”, he says), the sheer longevity is unavoidable. Wenger’s daughter Léa was born in the first couple of years of his tenure and is now an adult, while there will be plenty of lifelong Arsenal fans who had never known a time without him until Unai Emery’s arrival in 2018.
A clean break would have been impossible, but you never get the sense he would have wanted such a thing anyway.
“I support Arsenal, it will be forever my club. I’ve given my life to this club,” he says, though he notes the first game away from the club was strange,
“You don’t work for such a long time – I’ve worked for 40 years in management – and you can’t say you walk out of there and you don’t miss it.
“It’s normal, but when I miss it I focus on something different in life.”
His latest project is PlayerMaker, a sports technology company which measures multiple aspects of a footballer’s performance – including in-depth information about touches, distance covered and more – using a device mounted on the boot.
Wenger stresses that he has personally invested in the company, rather than just advertising the brand, and has now been announced as an operating partner.
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It feels like a natural fit, given Wenger’s own role in changing how technology was viewed in English football – before his arrival at Highbury, data was something of a dirty word in some corners of the game, but Wenger hints that interpretation is just as important as the numbers themselves.
“The manager has to make the right decision, because if you take only the physical data then you never play Messi,” Wenger says.
“That’s where the knowledge here comes in… you sometimes discover players and think they don’t work a lot but they work in the dark a little bit, they compensate.
“For example we had a player like Gilberto Silva, you didn’t see him a lot in the game, but you look at his work rate and it was unbelievable because he accepted to do the job that the others didn’t want to do.
“You always have to fight for [tech] and you always have to use it in the right way. That’s why I think this is all very good, but after that you have the knowledge and experience of the manager”
Wenger puts similar value on the ability of technology to help improve players already on a club’s books – PlayerMaker is used by academy coaches as well as those involved in first-team affairs – and cites the four stages of a player’s development.
Once they get beyond a certain age, he says, certain elements of their game cannot be improved – for example, a player can become quicker after the age of 14 by working on their muscle, but after the age of 14 the ability to improve raw pace is gone forever.
That Wenger still retains that passion for improving players at such a young age suggests that, should he return to management, he has no plans to dial back on the holistic approach to a football club which served him so well – and was perhaps eventually his undoing – at Arsenal.
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He is aware the game has changed but sees that as more of a reflection on society at large, adding: “We live in a society now where only the winner gets credit, only the best gets any credit and all the others are rubbish… you feel that when you’re not the best you’re Mr Nobody.
“I was never too much concerned about how we do and how we should be taken, I always do what I think was right with the right values.
“Modern society has developed a little bit more now into ‘how do I look’ and more ‘who I am’, so there are good and bad sides of it, but I was always more interested in ‘Is it right or not right?’”
Whether he returns as a manager, or in a different capacity, the passion is certainly still there. Arsène Wenger might have had time to take a step back and take the lay of the land, but his view of it was never likely to change.
By Tom Victor