On the day Arsene Wenger announced his departure from Arsenal, two separate people suggested to me that it was one of those ‘you remember where you were’ days.
Well, obviously. But then, like every football fan, I can essentially tell you where I was for almost every major football game over the past two decades, and so it’s only logical that the concept extends to major footballing news too. So yes, I’ll recall where I heard about Wenger’s departure, just as I remember where I read about Wenger’s arrival back in 1996: at home, reading it on Teletext.
This applies to every major football news story from the mid-1990s. To the majority of the general public, Teletext was largely an irrelevance occasionally used for holiday deals or lottery numbers. To football fans, it was a vital part of everyday life, the only on-demand place for updates on team news, transfer gossip and, of course, live scores.
Teletext and mid-1990s English football go hand-in-hand. Matt Le Tissier discovered he’d been omitted from England’s World Cup 1998 squad by reading Teletext. Dennis Bergkamp said his transfer to Arsenal in 1995 only sunk in when he’d returned to his hotel room, checked P302 (having been able to pick up English teletext in Holland, he knew the numbers) and saw the headline ‘Bergkamp agrees to join Arsenal’.
This was the world Wenger was coming into. English football was, literally and metaphorically, in the Teletext era. Off the pitch: minimal physical conditioning, little focus upon nutrition and too much drinking. On the pitch: long balls, boggy pitches and hard tackles. Wenger overhauled things in both respects, his off-field innovations encouraging a more technical, cultured and artistic on-pitch style.
More than anything, Wenger was foreign. He wasn’t offering information from the same old sources like Teletext, but brought fresh thinking from overseas. He was essentially English football’s version of the world wide web. Wenger seemingly offered a bit of everything: the linguistic skills of Babelfish, the eye for a bargain of Ebay, the calm mannerisms of Jeeves. Route one, and P302, was no longer enough.
It’s worth remembering, though, that the early days of the internet were relatively primitive: ‘dialling up’, using it at off-peak hours, depending upon Internet Explorer. But more than anything the early internet was largely about transmitting information, a one-way process like reading Teletext. The information was more detailed, more attractive and more wide-ranging, covering areas Teletext could only dream of. But it was essentially doing the same thing.
That was Wenger. He wasn’t reinventing the wheel at Arsenal: he still played 4-4-2 and he focused upon physically impressive players rather than pure technicians, and initially liked quick attacking rather than possession play. Most pertinently, Wenger’s tactical thinking was relatively simple. He concentrated solely upon his own side – essentially in keeping with the old-school British approach, where assessing the nature of the opposition was considered evidence of mental weakness.
In 2004, things changed: the internet buzzword became ‘Web 2.0’, popularised at a web summit that October. This referred, essentially, to the internet becoming based around user-generated content. The way we use the internet now is almost unrecognisable from our first experiences; our information is now largely interactive, and provided by friends and ‘ordinary’ people on social media as much as by traditional information providers.
At the same time, tactical thinking in English football changed dramatically with the arrival of Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez, two managers already successful in European terms because they considered the opposition’s approach in tremendous detail, seemingly paying more attention to them than their own side. Mourinho was the Facebook figure, compiling extensive dossiers on the opposition and using his most talented young coach, Andre Villas-Boas, as an opposition analyst. Benitez, meanwhile, was famous for his video library stretching back decades, which he would frequently consult before making tactical selections. He was the YouTube. This was Tactics 2.0.
Wenger struggled to adapt: tellingly, his final title was won in May 2004, the last point before that revolution. There are, of course, other factors: Arsenal’s transition to a new stadium, an enormous project Wenger played a leading role in, hampered Arsenal’s finances for years and Wenger’s task was now finishing in the Champions League places, which he achieved consistently.
Nevertheless, Arsenal’s weakness was their tactical naivety: for years they continued to perform in their default manner against everyone. In matches against Mourinho’s Chelsea, for example, they would be exposed on the counter-attack. In trips to long-ball sides like Stoke or Bolton, they would seemingly have no solution to the problem. Wenger was still simply transmitting information about his ideals, Geocities in a Twitter age.
In recent years things have evolved further. Whereas Wenger was a ‘manager’ with a wide-ranging brief to cover every area of his football club, we now have ‘first-team coaches’ who focus purely upon tactics and match preparation. They have distinct tactical approaches and focus upon a couple of key concepts, whether it’s Mauricio Pochettino and his pressing, Jurgen Klopp and counter-pressing, Antonio Conte and his 3-4-3, Pep Guardiola and his tiki-taka. They are, more than wide concepts like the internet, more like individual apps with a specific purpose, while Wenger is, alas, still working out how to ‘unzip’ a zipped file.
Anyway, I remember learning about Wenger’s appointment on Teletext, and I’ll remember how I learned about Wenger’s departure last month. I was told on WhatsApp, subsequently checked the news via Twitter, gave my thoughts to a podcast and, of course, had a sneaky look at a certain Arsenal-based YouTube channel.
None of these four things – WhatsApp, Twitter, podcasts or YouTube – were around in mid-2004 for Wenger’s last title, let alone 1996 for his appointment. But, just as those concepts are all reliant upon the internet, today’s remarkably studious and international managerial line-up is only possible because of the revolutionary, inspirational and forward-thinking Wenger.