Arsene Wenger’s major flaw – and why it impacts Arsenal now more than ever

Twenty years ago, a change of plan helped Arsenal win the Premier League – but it also revealed a great manager’s long-standing weakness, says Chas Newkey-Burden

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Ian Wright appeared at the dressing room window, dressed just in his underpants, and swapped insults with Arsenal fans. As tempers rose, an onlooking policeman grabbed his radio and barked: “Haul Ian Wright out of the dressing room. I want to talk to him – now!”

It was December 1997, five months into Arsene Wenger’s first full season at the club. After a 12-match unbeaten run, the Gunners had lost four games out of six – including a 3-0 reverse at Derby – and, on this fateful day, a 3-1 defeat to Blackburn. It left the club in fifth place, 10 points adrift of leaders Manchester United.

Ian Wright

Wright (clothed) after club officials asked him to explain exchanges with fans post-Blackburn game

At the final whistle, before Wright’s panted ranting, Gunners fans had booed and thrown their scarves onto the pitch. The season was unravelling. The librarians were revolting. Something had to give – and it did.

Pointed fingers

The players called a clear-the-air meeting at the Sopwell House hotel in St Albans. Home truths were aired and fingers were pointed, never with more sharpness than when the back four demanded that central midfielders Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit focus more on the defensive side of their duties. “You haven’t got a clue what your job is,” Tony Adams told them. “We need some protection.”

The Gallic duo responded positively and this simple tactical tweak changed everything: the team went on an 18-match unbeaten league run, lifting the title for the first time in seven years.

Vieira and Petit made their adjustments – and voila

But why did it take Adams and his fellow defenders to identify such an obvious problem and to point out the simple solution? Isn’t that what the manager is there for?

Critics of Wenger say this episode was the merely the first signal of a permanent weakness in his managerial philosophy; a laissez faire approach that largely delegates tactics and coaching to the players.  

First impressions

When he first arrived in north London, back when the media sat adoringly at his lotus feet as if taking instruction from a Vedic sage, Wenger explained his philosophy was that a coach should simply provide a framework in which players can express themselves.

He has been true to his word: by all accounts, the boss says little to his players in the dressing room. Even at half time, Wenger largely eschews tactical switches from opposition to opposition, and almost never raises his voice. Instead, he simply encourages his players to be themselves and have faith that this credo will guide them to glory.   

For Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, it becomes like a game of chess. But Wenger is still all about purist expression

But other managers are increasingly obsessing over tactics. Should their team drop off, press high, counter-attack or opt for a possession-heavy approach? These bosses make tweaks throughout games. For some, like Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, it becomes like a game of chess. But Wenger is still all about purist expression.

Even for the biggest game of his career, he stuck to his guns. In his biography of Thierry Henry, Philippe Auclair says that a couple of days before the 2006 Champions League Final, Wenger “casually” mentioned that he and his coaching staff would wait until the eve of the game before taking a look at how Barcelona generally lined up and played. Henry himself has expressed surprise at how briefly Wenger dwelt on the opposition in his talk ahead of the historic match.