Arsene Wenger’s leadership: a neutral perspective

I know very little about football, less about football management. But I’m surrounded by football fanatics, and I get regular invitations to games by business colleagues which I enjoy greatly. I hear a great deal of stuff about football from them, and it’s hard to avoid it on social media.

Arsenal and Arsene Wenger figure hugely in their discourse. Incidentally, am I the only one who marvels at the similarity in his name and that of the club?. “He’s lost the dressing-room” one of my contacts declared, rather pompously I thought. I ask him what that means. He gives me a withering look. “The team don’t see him as a leader no more”.

This usually erudite person lapses into faux Estuary English. Is this patois a prerequisite for football street cred I wonder. I avoided asking him why he didn’t say that in the first place but instead asked him what had Mr Wenger done wrong? “Done wrong! Done wrong!” he roars as if I’d expressed sympathy for an axe murderer in the dock. “He’s not won; that’s what he’s not done” he almost added “mate” but stopped short, suffused with emotion.

He shook his head and added somberly: “Tis time, t’is time to go”. He was trying to sound “more in sorrow than in anger”, but he just sounded angry.

Is it that he has not invested enough money in better players I ask, now feeling in more familiar business territory. “Well, Arsenal’s not as rich as some of the other clubs, that’s for sure”.

You mean the ones that win? “Well being a great football manager is not just about throwing money around” in a tone which suggested that he felt I couldn’t possibly comprehend what it took to be a great football manager. All he knew was that Wenger was not one, “no more.”

I saw a chink of hope here: if he’s lost it that must mean he once had it so, forgive me, but I can imagine how a footballer might lose greatness because it’s in the body as much the mind but how does a great football leader lose greatness? I was going to add that I could understand how any leader might get a bit stale after 20 plus years and could easily freshen up by doing my Small Change Leadership Programme. But I thought better of it. Instead I told him, hoping to impress and by way of academic support, that I had read Alex Ferguson’s first book.

A look of pure contempt mixed with irritation crossed his face, and he just said: “It’s not that simple”. But a bit weakly, I thought. Feeling I had him on the back foot, I pressed my advantage and asked if it wasn’t just like that bloke at Leicester City? “Claudio Ranieri” he mutters, disgusted that I couldn’t remember his name. “Proper order too, Claudio had to go just as Wenger will have to go. It’s the way it is. The fans want wins and if the manager isn’t delivering them – well, on yer bike”.

But I said isn’t there a place for doing the best you can, given your resources and that winning isn’t everything? “Au contraire mon Vieux” he replied suddenly and weirdly switching languages and tone, from angry to patronising, “eet eez aaaall about weeening”.

But didn’t I see somewhere that Wenger encourages young players to make mistakes just like a good CEO would and he actually says: “winning isn’t everything”. And I added, having looked it up, Arsenal is always in the top four and other teams have not done well after leadership changes. I finished off with: that background puts the minor issue of the thirteen fallow years and the inconvenient truth about the Champions League into perspective, doesn’t it? I felt well pleased with my punditry.

“I give up’, he said in disgust. “You know nothing”, almost saying “nuffink”. He’s probably right, but I hope Mr Wenger stays to the end of his contract because he sounds like a good CEO who cares, knows how to develop people and delivers reasonably good results, consistently. What’s not to like?

[Note: every attempt has been made to hide the identity of the other party using liberal poetic licence and some suppleness with the accuracy of the quotes]

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