Arsene Wenger: "When Arsenal played their first match without me, it felt strange"

Arsene Wenger

The date was August 12, 2018, and Arsenal were taking on Manchester City. Almost 60,000 people were at the Emirates Stadium that Sunday afternoon, but Arsene Wenger was not one of them.

This was Unai Emery's first competitive fixture as Gunners boss - Arsenal's first game without Wenger for 22 years. If fans needed some time to get used to it, so too did Wenger himself.

"It was a bit strange at the start," Wenger tells FourFourTwo. "But my mind is quite well trained. I can focus on what I want to focus on.

"If you work for such a long time, for 40 years in management, you cannot say you don't miss it. But when I miss it, I focus on something different in life."

FFT is meeting Wenger at an event to announce his newest focus - he's become an investment partner in PlayerMaker (opens in new tab), a football technology company that measures player performance using a motion sensor mounted on to a player's boot.

The 69-year-old has kept a relatively low profile since leaving Arsenal 12 months ago, and there's a sense that he's actively enjoying this reunion with the English media - sitting around a table with journalists, just as he did thousands of times during his time as Gunners boss.

"Retirement is dying," he said a year before the end of his reign at the Emirates - in three words, he'd crystallised his fears about life after Arsenal.

"I was in front of the unknown," he admits now. "You never know how you respond to that situation, because I never wrote a CV in my life, but I'd always worked. I started at 29 as a manager and I never stopped for 40 years."

Wenger hasn't retired from football just yet, though, and still isn't ruling out the prospect of a comeback. He'd previously vowed to return to management on January 1, but it's now late May and it's yet to happen - even though he admits he's received attractive offers.

"I have, yes," he confirms. "Originally I wanted to manage again straight away. Then I thought, 'Do I go straight into the heat again?' It's not so much the heat, but once you go in there, there's nothing else in your life. So I thought, 'Let's at least take a bit of time'. I thought, 'OK, two months, three months'. Now I have a problem to get in again!

"But it's been enjoyable. You have seen me on telly as a pundit, although not for Arsenal games, because everything I would say about Arsenal could be interpreted in a certain way. I read a lot, I play different sports, I've travelled a lot, I've watched a lot of games, charity work, and I've done many conferences on football, management, motivation, the meaning of life... I personally don't know what it means!

"The good feeling now is that I don't have to get up, and if I have a lunch that's interesting: I don't have to leave because I have a commitment. I discovered that freedom of time, and it's a good feeling.

"I don't know if I will go back to management. I will get back into football, for sure - in what position, I don't know. It can be as a manager, or not. I think the appetite is still there, the desire is still there, but I know what kind of life I have now. I have to decide."

But a year on, his love of his old club has not diminished - even if the matches aren't quite as stressful as they used to be. "I support Arsenal, it will be my club forever," he says. "I've given my life to the club. I'm like a fan now. I don't judge - I'm happy when they win and not happy when we don't play well, but I try to take some distance with it."

He'll be hoping the Gunners are victorious when they take on Chelsea in the Europa League final next week, and feels for the supporters who are either unable to travel to Baku, or are faced with the journey from hell. "It's a little bit of a nightmare," he admits. "The teams will have no problem - it's the same for both and they live in ideal conditions. They have a private jet, and nice business seats, but it's the fans it's a nightmare for."

The fans and Armenian wide man Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who will miss the final after deciding it was not safe to travel to Azerbaijan, following years of tensions between the two countries. "That's something that should not happen in football, in the modern world - that politically you cannot play a football game," Wenger says, having signed Mkhitaryan from Manchester United, months before his departure from the club.

For now, Wenger is focusing on his new venture in analytics and technology - something he's always been interested in. "I think I was the first in England who made an agreement to measure the distances players ran on the football pitch," he explains.

"I think it was 1999, a guy from Leeds had created a system and I met him. I'd worked on performance weighting in 1987 and 1988, with friends of mine on computers. We worked day and night to really measure the performances of players. We were 20 years ahead at the time. I was at Monaco and we could judge players using that. We discovered some players who weren't really stars, but became good players.

"You always feel lonely as manager. You have to make decisions and you'd like to know more, because your decisions are always questioned. You want as much information as you can.

"I've invested in this company – I'm not just here for an advert, I've put my money in. Why? Because I think it's the most accurate system that I've seen and the least disturbing. The system we had until now was you put the equipment on your chest, but I saw many players throw the equipment away during games or training.

"It's faster, too. You put a chip in the computer after training and you have the information straight away. Usually we have to wait 24 hours or 48 hours. You have it in real time - basically you cannot cheat any more!

"When I played, when you went to run in the forest you had some players who would hide behind a tree and waited until the rest of the team came back. That's not possible any more..."

The PlayerMaker technology allows myriad data to be collated, from distance run to the number of touches made and even kick velocity. It's already in use at a number of clubs including Fulham, Millwall, Atlanta United and Club America in Mexico, and the data is designed to aid coaching of individual players, injury prevention and identification of potential signings.

But Wenger says the data is most powerful when used in conjunction with a manager's own knowledge and judgement. "The science is vital, but afterwards it's how you use it as a manager," he says. "What's important for a manager is to get as much information as you can, and after that use your knowledge to make a decision.

"This measures what's happening on the pitch, and a sports scientist interprets that. You have a meeting in the morning and the sports scientist is there from yesterday's training. He might say 'This guy was tired yesterday, he should not play on Saturday'. But if he had a fantastic game the day before that, you might go against the science. He could have been tired because he was at the disco, not because the training was too hard!

"The modern manager has to collect the data and then make decisions with his knowledge - he has to be strong enough to do what he thinks is right.

"Sometimes through the data, you discover players who you think don't work a lot, but they work in the dark a little bit - they're generous, they compensate for others, they do a lot of work. We had Gilberto Silva and you didn't see him a lot in the game, but you looked at his work rate and he was unbelievable. He accepted to do the job that the others didn't want to do. You discover that sometimes - the guy who makes the difference.

"But if you take only the physical data, you'd never play Messi. If we were all managers tomorrow, we'd all play Messi."

Whether Wenger does become a manager again, only time will tell. But it probably won't be tomorrow. 

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Chris Flanagan
Staff Writer

Chris joined FourFourTwo in 2015 and has reported from 20 countries, in places as varied as Jerusalem and the Arctic Circle. He's interviewed Pele, Zlatan and Santa Claus (it's a long story), as well as covering Euro 2020 and the Clasico. He previously spent 10 years as a newspaper journalist, and completed the 92 in 2017.