Five leadership lessons from Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger has managed Arsenal for fourteen years straight. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson is the only manager to have spent longer at his current club. So how can you emulate the staying power of the man they call 'Le Professor'?

by Kier Wiater-Carnihan
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

1. Make your name synonymous with your brand


That was the headline in the Evening Standard when Arsène Wenger arrived in London in 1996 following two years in the managerial wilderness at Japanese side Nagoya Grampus 8. Tony Adams, Arsenal’s then captain, recalls thinking, ‘What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher’. An inspirational leader on the pitch but a hopeless alcoholic off it, Adams defined a club thirsty for both success and the strong stuff, riddled with epic drinking sessions, out of control gambling, eating competitions and cocaine abuse (and that was just Paul Merson's pre-match warm up).

Now it is Wenger who defines Arsenal. He immediately replaced the card schools and liquid lunches with dieticians and acupuncturists, bringing a continental outlook to the club and developing a free-flowing, attacking style of play. Fans under twenty-years-old haven't known the club without him, and his association with the Arsenal brand is so strong that even a distinct lack of recent success hasn't threatened to sever it. If you can achieve that level of personal identification with a brand – think Sir Stuart Rose and M&S, O’Leary with Ryanair - your position will be similarly unshakeable. 

2. A beautiful game is less important than a beautiful balance sheet

For the last seven seasons, Arsenal have come about as close to winning trophies as the government has to implementing successful economic policy but the board remains absolutely delighted with Wenger's work. When American real estate billionaire and sports mogul ‘Silent’ Stan Kroenke took a controlling stake in the club four years ago, some suggested he might want to bring in his own man. From a financial point of view, he’d have been mad to do so. An investor looking to profitably navigate the sheik ‘n’ oligarch dominated, regulation-light ‘Wild West’ of British football couldn’t choose a better steward than Wenger. An economics graduate in an environment where possessing anything beyond a GCSE is a rarity, his attention to fiscal detail is unwavering.

Most importantly for the balance sheet, he’s also taken Arsenal into the lucrative Champions League every season since he arrived. At last week’s AGM, an increasingly fractious affair, he reiterated his belief that qualification for the competition is more important than winning a domestic trophy. Driving home the fact that Arsenal FC now plays second fiddle to Arsenal Holdings PLC, chairman Peter Hill-Wood later insisted that it had been ‘an extremely good year’ for the club, a statement that was met with derision by many fans.

And as long as Wenger continues to get the team into the Champions League, he'll be richly rewarded. With an estimated annual salary of €9m, ‘Le Boss’ currently takes home a higher salary than Sir Alex Ferguson (€8.5m). The latter, it's worth pointing out, has won four league titles, three league cups and a Champions League since Arsenal's FA Cup victory on penalties against Manchester United in 2005. It goes to show that shareholders are generally less worried about competitors' successes if their own bank balance is firmly in the black.

3. Invest in youth, but don't expect loyalty

Nicolas Anelka, Patrick Vieira, Kolo Toure, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie; all signed by Arsenal at a young age as virtual unknowns (Fabregas had never even played first-team football) but all sold for many times their initial fees. Along with players like Thierry Henry, they owe a large part of their careers to Wenger's confidence and nurturing, while he in turn has benefited from the policy of targeting younger players - identifying a talent early is much more cost-effective than trying to compete for the biggest names, especially when your rivals can out-spend you.

However, while the top players Wenger develops frequently talk up his significant influence on their careers, many still seem to end up taking said careers elsewhere. Every close season seems to bring a transfer saga more tedious and predictable than even the most protracted of Eastenders storylines, inevitably ending with another high-profile exit. The club may make a huge return on these players, but fans would argue that £20m-worth of profit on van Persie might not be as valuable as, you know, actually having van Persie. Sadly, while harnessing young talent and launching fledgling careers is satisfying and can be profitable, you must be hard-nosed and recognise that team members will move on.

4. It's great to have a philosophy, but don't stick to it too rigidly

There’s no denying that Wenger's Arsenal has produced some fine football over the years. Yet Wenger’s preferred formula of favouring technical superiority over tactical pragmatism seems to fail increasingly frequently. Partly this is because Arsenal doesn't possess the same level of collective technical ability as they once did, but it's also because other teams have learnt how to stifle and frustrate them. Yet Wenger continues to send his team out in the same formation, playing the same tactics, in virtually every game. It's like going out every day in a crisp pair of suede shoes regardless of the weather forecast – sure you'll look fantastic most of the time, but when it starts raining you'll look like a berk.

You can't assume that a certain strategy which brings rewards for a while will remain effective forever. Arsenal's consistent financial prudence is different - their spending power has been hampered by the huge expense of building the Emirates Stadium, thanks to a few less-than-lucrative commercial deals. It is also partially an attempt to future-proof the club against Uefa's planned Financial Fair Play directive, under which clubs will face strict penalties if they fail to control their debts. If FFP were to be brought in tomorrow, Arsenal would pass with ease while their rivals would struggle to hide the liabilities loading down their ledgers. Sadly there's no guarantee that said rivals wouldn't find a loophole to worm their way through, but if the FFP arrives bearing teeth then Arsenal's financial strategy will look very smart indeed.

Wenger's work to get the club into that position is why he's one of the only football managers you'd trust to run an actual business. Few of his peers could've kept a team so near the top of the Premier League while financing a huge new stadium, and for that he deserves credit. However, just as some Gunners have misgivings about their football club being run like a business, you'd generally be wise to avoid running your business like a football club. No one wants a Glasgow Rangers on their hands after all.

5. Delegation is not a sign of weakness

In 2006, Wenger hired former Arsenal defender Martin Keown on a temporary basis to help out the coaching staff. That year, despite their defence being heavily depleted through injury, Arsenal embarked on a record-breaking run of ten consecutive Champions League matches without conceding a goal, leading to a début appearance in the season's show-piece finale. Keown was widely perceived as being pivotal in tightening a previously leaky defence, yet his services were not retained the following season. Arsenal have not been close to a Champions League final since.

Pat Rice's replacement as assistant manager, Steve Bould, had partnered Keown in a mean central defence as a player, and received similarly praise for shoring up Arsenal's defence at the beginning of this season, with the team conceding just three goals in their opening six matches. However, this newly found steel seems to have dissolved of late. Former player Stewart Robson has suggested the sudden loss of form stems from a rumoured rift between Bould and Wenger. ‘I hoped that [Bould] would do more with the defence,’ Robson admitted, ‘but I'm not sure whether he's being allowed to do that by Arsène Wenger’.

Wenger is sometimes painted as an inflexible control freak and perhaps a part of it is simply an effort to keep his job secure – the more he does himself, the harder it is for one man to replace him. Other staff being credited for on-field triumphs could also be viewed as a threat. Still, MT would advise against autocracy. ‘Always employ people who are smarter than you,’ goes the old adage. Not only does this strategy reap greater rewards in the long run, but AGMs will be a whole lot less volatile too…

Like this? Check out:

Five leadership lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson

Five business lessons from Harry Redknapp


Image: joshdjss

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