The Global Soul: Arsenal's Manager, Trained as an Economist, Has Always Believed That a Football Club Must Operate within Its Means. but Arsenal Are Struggling to Compete with Their Rivals' Wealth. Is Arsene Wenger Approaching the End, or Will the Credit Crunch Save Both Him and His Noble Vision of the Game?

Article excerpt

Nobody now remembers the name of Jozef Venglos. Dr Jozef Venglos. Arriving in England on the back of an indifferent 1990 World Cup as the Czechoslovak coach, he lasted a solitary season as manager of Aston Villa. The then owner of Aston Villa, Doug Ellis, belatedly realised that you will never win anything with doctorates, and got rid of the good doctor.

It took several further seasons before English football again warmed to the idea of a Continental intellectual in the dugout. When Arsene Wenger was appointed manager of Arsenal in autumn 1996, the papers were still inclined to doubt. "Arsene Who?" asked the London Evening Standard. It's true that few had heard of Arsenal's new appointment. There was no playing career to act as his calling card-sure, he'd done a bit in France but, as the consonance of their surnames suggested, the suspicion remained that this Wenger might be a second Venglos. In addition, of all the unlikely places to board a Premiership bound plane, Tokyo would have to be up there with Ulan Bator and New York. Wenger had just finished a stint as coach of Nagoya Grampus Eight, in the Japanese J-League.

That was in the mid-Nineties. Back then the Premier League needed Wenger. It just didn't know it did. His philosophy of holistically preparing the footballer's mind and body was not just novel, it was revolutionary. He has unarguably been the single most influential figure in English football in the past dozen years, and possibly more. But the question now unexpectedly being asked about the national game is a sobering one: Does it still need Wenger?

To an outsider it may not sound catastrophic, but Arsenal are struggling to maintain their position as one of the top four English clubs; if they were to finish this season outside the top four, for the first time since Wenger became manager, they would not qualify for Europe's Champions League, with its deep reservoir of television money. To be shut out from the Champions League would only speed their segregation from the elite. Now, more than ever, it is time to wonder whether the virtues that Wenger uniquely embodies--fiscal prudence and bourgeois moderation--have a place in a league where every half-decent club is owned by a foreign plutocrat. Even Arsenal has a foreign leading shareholder: the Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov, with 24.9 percent.

It was apparent that Wenger was different soon after his arrival when he courageously challenged a pack of doorsteping hacks to repeat the scurrilous rumour about his sexual proclivities doing the rounds on the internet. They backed down. Since then, he has kept not only journalists at arm's length, but also players.

"As a manager," he wrote while in Japan," I have become accustomed to not showing my personal feelings." It has made him unknowable. "You'll never work him out," Mark Hateley, a former England player, told me when I embarked on my biography of Wenger. In the event, Wenger didn't talk to me, but all his closest friends in France did.

What we do know of Arsene Wenger is that he is not like any club manager this country had ever seen. In the 1980s, English football was a horror show of ugly play and crumbling stadiums. The one saving grace of this pre-moneyed yesteryear was that a small club of limited resources, such as a Norwich City or Sheffield Wednesday, could mount a title challenge. Then, in 1992, the premier League was established, with exclusive television rights being sold to Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB in a three-year deal worth [pounds sterling]305m to the clubs. English football would soon be turned into a gold rush. Everyone wanted a piece of the action.

At the dawn of the new age, Manchester United were England's dominant club until Wenger, sprinkling young Continental legs among the old English lags he inherited from the previous regime, transformed boring Arsenal into scoring Arsenal. For several years, a hugely entertaining stand-off between the two clubs and their managers ensued. …