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FEATURE | Arsène Wenger’s playing career – a tale of on-pitch mediocrity, but off-pitch initiative, intelligence & future planning

For some managers, it’s almost impossible to imagine them as professional footballers at one point in their career. Of course we are all familiar with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman as both players and coaches, but there are a certain group of managers that always raise a smile whenever you see a squad photo of them in their youth: it is surprising, it is eye-catching.

Not many young football fans would have had Louis Van Gaal down as a man who would’ve made over 200 first team appearances for Sparta Rotterdam, or even Guus Hiddink as a midfield general for North American clubs the Washington Diplomats or the San Jose Earthquakes, but the one that always makes people chuckle is Arsène Wenger as a sweeper. Yet, not many know anything about his playing career.

We all know Wenger as the man who transformed Arsenal Football Club in the mid to late 90’s and early 2000’s, being dubbed “The Professor” of English football due to his knowledge and of course, the fact he wore glasses, but many aren’t aware of Wenger’s playing career aside from the now famous picture of the Arsenal manager sporting a rather dashing perm, one even Kevin Keegan probably would have been jealous of.

Behind the mind of the man that delivered success to both Arsenal and AS Monaco lies a tale of something quite fascinating, and one that can help one begin to understand how Arsène Wenger became one of the most successful managers in Premier League history.

Wenger was born in the city of Strasbourg, Alsace, on the border between France and Germany and Wenger in fact lived in an area called Duppigheim during the 1950’s, but for the majority of his youth discovering the game of football he was taken across the border into neighbouring Germany to watch matches, with the young Wenger holding a place in his heart for Borussia Mönchengladbach, who played over four hours away from where he grew up.

From an early age, Wenger was fascinated by the complexity behind the sport according to contemporaries, studying different teams and formation, in love with players that had elegance, intelligence and personality in their game. What Wenger enjoyed watching as a child was eventually what he styled his teams around; hard and fast football but also with an elegance to send the fans home happy knowing they’d been treated to not only a victory, but a beautiful one at that.

So when Wenger listed the great Johan Cruyff, as his favourite player growing up despite the fact Cruyff is only three years older, comes as no shock:

“He was one of my idols when I was a kid because he was not much older than I was and did a lot of things on the pitch that I could not do! He was kind of the James Dean of football at the time – he smoked and played. I saw him playing against us at Strasbourg and he was eating a sandwich before the game, the he would go on the pitch and be the best player. He had that kind of expression of freedom in the way he behaved and that strength of personality was absolutely exceptional in that period.”

What Wenger saw in players like Cruyff was what made him fall in love with football, as it does with all of us, but this was different. The flair players who have the footballing brain to go along with their ability were often the players that Wenger built teams around. Glenn Hoddle at Monaco, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal.

Wenger joined FC Duttlenheim at the age of 12 and due to the pint-sized population in the surrounding area, more often than not it was tough to field a full team of 11 players of the same age. This enabled Wenger to receive exposure to higher levels of football earlier, but as many people pointed out including teammate Claude Wenger (a man that Arsène bizarrely has no familial relation to) and Duttlenheim President Marcel Brandner, even as a teenager, what stood out was his understanding of the game.

Claude Wenger was the first to note that Arsène wasn’t exactly blessed with pace, but he did notice that the younger Wenger had a quicker brain than almost anybody they played. Brandner agreed, saying “he (Arsène) made up for his lack of pace with his ability to guard the ball, seeming to have a complete vision of the pitch and having an influence among his teammates.”

Arsène was making up for all that he lacked by being one step ahead of his opponents, a hallmark of many current and present great players. He may not have jumped out immediately from a young age at Duttlenheim, but those he needed to know quickly realised how important he could be.

He was always the technician, the strategist of the team,” former teammate Jean-Noel Huck told The Guardian. “He was already getting his ideas across, but calmly. Arsène wasn’t even the captain, yet he acted like it on the pitch.”

As he grew older, he assumed more responsibility in the team. Wenger was a leader on the pitch and would make sure everyone knew their positions and even though it was only a teenage that was barking instructions, the team listened.

Soon afterwards, Wenger found himself moving to third division club Mutzig, where he would further his footballing knowledge, taking in games from both Germany and France as well as learning new tactics and managerial philosophies. It was around this time where the Arsène Wenger we all know started to flourish, mainly thanks to his mentor and manager Max Hind.

The two hit it off immediately, conversing about tactics and how to improve the side on and off the field. “He was always eager to learn. He wanted to know everything, from tactics to team strategy, to how to improve,” said Hild.

Wenger and Hild would cross the border into Germany to watch Bundesliga games together at a time when German football was on top of the world. West Germany had won both the 1972 European Championships and the 1974 World Cup against Cruyff’s Total Football Dutch side.

Bayern Munich, led by the imperious Franz Beckenbauer, were on their way to winning three consecutive European Cups, so whilst the trips across the border may have been fun, Hild insists that the two would always come home late debating and discovering something new.

Eventually, Mutzig would move Wenger on to Mulhouse in the French Second Division, meaning for the first time in his career Arsène Wenger was a professional footballer. Once again, this move proved to add more to Wenger’s knowledge of the game, even if he did not excel spectacularly on the pitch and when Strasbourg native Paul Frantz took the club over, the two hit it off very well induced by a series of joint morning commutes from Strasbourg.

“Those journeys on the train actually served as a motivation for us,” said Frantz. “I ended up using those chats we had to integrate Arsène into the team, where he would effectively become my mouthpiece out on the pitch. He took the ideas we talked about in the carriage out onto the field, and he organised his teammates along the lines we had talked about. I don’t think I ever had to tell him expressly to do that, he just took it on naturally.”

As Frantz suggests, Wenger was a natural leader and that carried throughout his whole career. Claude Wenger back at Duttlenheim recognised this in Arsène quickly, as did Hild and Frantz and it led to Arsène being one of the most important players in whichever side he played for, because tactically he was always one step ahead of everyone… even his own teammates.

Frantz and Wenger helped keep Mulhouse in the Second Division, but the pair wouldn’t be at the club for very long. Frantz left following the survival season and Wenger, who was tired of the long commutes from Strasbourg, sought after a club a lot closer to home.

Back home, a Strasbourg based club by the name of AS Vauban had hired Max Hild as their coach, and one of his first signings was, you guessed it, Arsène Wenger. Naturally, Vauban did quite well with both Hild and Wenger in their ranks, but it wasn’t long until they were back on their way out when RC Strasbourg showed up to pick Hild up as the new manager of their reserve side.

Hild had brought Wenger to Vauban with him because he wanted someone who could, in his own words, “organise play and also have a sort of hold over the team,” which led him to bringing in Arsène as a midfielder. A few years later, and the same situation had occurred although this time Hild decided to bring Wenger in as a player/coach, something that would shape him for the rest of his life.

Hild had been taken by RC Strasbourg to run their reserve team, but with the club managing to qualify for the UEFA Cup, they wanted Hild to become a scout, travelling to watch their opponents and to provide analysis on how to beat them.

For Hild this was a great opportunity, but it also meant that the club was effectively left without a reserve manager from time to time. Both Max Hild and Paul Frantz recommended Wenger for the role as caretaker manager of the reserve side, and with his playing career waning, he accepted the offer.

Wenger was still occasionally playing for Strasbourg as a player/manager and he occasionally moved up as a sweeper for the odd first team appearance, but almost all of his attention turned to coaching the reserve side. Strasbourg’s first team ended up becoming Ligue 1 champions in 1979, their first and only triumph in the French top flight, but rather than go out with the rest of the squad to celebrate the victory, Wenger stayed behind. Why wouldn’t you join your fellow teammates to celebrate winning the league? Because Wenger was busy working alongside the youth team and furthering his education in coaching, that’s how dedicated he was.

When Hild was officially appointed manager of the Strasbourg first team, he handed Wenger further roles, mainly being his Jack-of-All-Trades. In an interview with magazine with Four Four Two, Wenger told them:

“I would drive six hundred miles to look for decent players. Sometimes I would arrive two hours before the game started and stand behind the goal in the rain, then drive home the same night. What people don’t know is that, when I was a young coach of thirty-one at the Strasbourg academy, I was the coach, scout, physio, captain… everything! It was a fantastic education.”

If there was ever a story told that fully showed how dedicated Wenger was to learning, and not just about football, it comes from the summer of 1978. All of his friends were going away on trips to the sunny shores of Turkey and Greece, getting some time off and having fun, but not Arsène, he decided he was going to go down a different route for his summer “holiday”.

He flew out to Cambridge. Yes, that Cambridge, but it was because he wanted to learn about different cultures, as he never envisaged living his whole life in France. He took a three-week course with kids aged twelve and fourteen on the English Language and Literature. “I never worked so hard,” said Wenger.

“When I came back home, I started to read novels in English and underlined every word I didn’t know. And that’s how I learned it.” When you think that in one summer Wenger effectively learned a new language, you are reminded of his sheer intelligence. It is safe to say, that course served him well in years to come!

A few years following Strasbourg’s Ligue 1 success, Wenger retired from professional football to focus on the coaching side of the game, and thus ends the story of Arsène Wenger’s playing career. It may pale in comparison to the likes of Zinedine Zidane, or even a Mauricio Pochettino, but the education he learned under some of his managers and coaches helped shape the man who won the Premier League and FA Cup Double in his first full season in England.

Wenger’s playing career may be a little-known and told story, but it doesn’t make it any less integral to who he is. In fact, without the way his career panned out, we may never have had Arsène Wenger in any dugout. In fact, his parents wanted him to become a lawyer or a doctor…

 


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