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Arsene Wenger: Leadership

For the first time on CoachTim.Org we have a guest blogger. Daniel Simpson is currently a performance analyst within Portsmouth Football Club.  He has just completed a BA (Hons) Football Studies degree in Southampton.  Originally from Northern Ireland he moved to England to pursue the main passion of his life – football.  Throughout the years he has developed a great interest in the tactical side of the game & this prompted a move into performance analysis.  Within the past two years Simpson has worked at Glentoran, where he was fortunate to play a role in their very memorable Europa League tie against KR Rejkavic.  He then moved on to Portsmouth FC where he has been learning from some of the best analysts in the country whilst helping develop players within their academy through video analysis.

This article provides an insight into the legend that is Arsene Wenger.  What he has achieved with Arsenal is exactly what every coach dreams of achieving.  His passion for the game & his philosophy & commitment for developing players is incredible.  This article seeks to delve into his leadership to provide a model of excellence for aspiring coaches.

We thank Daniel for sharing his report.  Make sure you follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

Wenger communicating with his players

This report seeks to critically evaluate the leadership style to form a behavioural model of excellence for Arsene Wenger.  Applying Burns (1978) model of transactional and transformational leadership it is proposed that Wenger is a transformational leader and this assignment will explore the cognitive and behaviour characteristics of Wenger in relation to this theory.

Born in Strasbourg in 1949, Arsene Wenger has grown to become one of the most recognisable names in world football.  As a player he played for clubs such as Duttlenheim FC and Racing Club de Strasbourg but whilst never being a sensational player he was fascinated with tactics, an obsession which led him into coaching (Rivoire, 2007).  He began his coaching career at RC Strasbourg where in his final year as a player he would coach the reserve team before moving on to become the head coach of the reserve and youth set up.  He then moved on to manage AS Cannes, AS Monaco, Grampus Eight and is now the current manager of Arsenal.  In his first season at Monaco (187-88) he led the club to their first title win in six years, the first of a long list of personal successes including the Coup de France, FA Premier league as well as reaching the final of the Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup in 1990 and 2000 respectively.

Behavioural modelling is a process used within psychology to evaluate the cognitive and behavioural characteristics of an individual (Whitfield & Davidson, 2007).  Within the context of this assignment this refers to the ways in which Arsene Wenger thinks and behaves in various situations.  Kuhnert & Lewis (1987) state that behavioural modelling may be the key to understanding the link between a leader and their followers and applying the method to a successful manager like Wenger provides a model of excellence which can be used by aspiring leaders.

The concept of leadership has changed and developed over time and whilst leadership and management often overlap, they are very much two different concepts (Westerbeek & Smith, 2005).  Whilst management can be defined as the process of directing a group to complete a task when values and principles have already been established, leadership concerns the development of these values through establishing a vision and providing inspiration and motivation to those who follow them (Northouse, 2010; McKenna, 2000).  This assignment focuses on Arsene Wenger’s leadership characteristics to analyse his cognitive and behavioural characteristics in relation to Burns’ (1978) model of transactional and transformational leadership.

Burns’ (1978) model of transactional and transformational leadership was formed on the basis that transactional leadership places emphasis on maintaining stability and exploiting the knowledge of those within the group (Bass, 1990).  It also suggests that followers under a transactional leadership are motivated by reward and punishment based on their efforts (Northouse, 2010).  Therefore the relationship between a transactional leader and their followers is based on tangible rewards such as bonuses for successful results (Wright, 1996).  Transformational leadership however, is a more enduring process through which the leader initiates change and seeks opportunities for the organisation and those in it to develop and buy into the vision of the leader (Bass, 1990; Lussier & Achua, 2010).

This model offers a method for determining the type of leader an individual is and the effect they have on their followers.  However, it is formed on the basis of two extremes through suggesting a transactional leader focuses on the present situation whilst a transformational leader is constantly looking toward the future.  Like all other forms of leadership, transactional and transformational leadership styles will overlap depending on the situation and therefore a leader must have some flexibility in their approach (Kuhnert & Lewis, 1987).  Therefore, whilst Arsene Wenger can be seen as a transformational leader, it is hypothesised that this assignment will display instances where he rejects transformational leadership theory to adopt a more suitable approach.

The first attribute associated with transformational leadership is charisma and Charteis-Black (2007) suggests that a charismatic leader is someone whose followers believe in the power and attributes they hold.  It is a rare quality found in leaders who seek to establish a vision and mission to the group they are leading (Bass, 1990).  When Wenger joined Arsenal in 1996 the club had a reputation of being a highly defensive and boring team but he had a vision of how he wanted football to be played in an offensive manner which would seek to exploit the strengths of their players; a style which Arsenal are now famous for throughout the world (Rivoire, 2007; Wenger, 2011a).  The club have not won the Premier League since 2004 and whilst Wenger believes the values of a club should remain the same he aimed to reinvent the club (Rivoire, 2007).  This has seen Arsenal win three league championships (1998, 2002, 2004) and four FA cups (1998, 2002, 2003, 2005) under Wenger’s leadership, including league and cup doubles in 1998 and 2002.  Despite this success Arsenal have not won a trophy since 2005, a fact that is constantly troubling the ambitious nature of Wenger (Rivoire, 2007; Wenger, 2011b).

Arsene passing on instructions to his players

Audus et al (1997) state that the role of any football manager is to direct and co-ordinate those underneath them. However although managerial change often results in positive short-term results, the majority of clubs tend to perform less well in the longer term (Audus et al, 1997; Bridgewater, 2010).  Therefore, rather than instigating quick erratic changes a transformational manager seeks to develop a culture over time that their followers can buy into (Kuhnert & Lewis, 1987).  This is consistent with Wenger’s behaviour when taking charge at Arsenal as rather than introducing his own coaching team he kept Pat Rice, former Arsenal player and current coach in order to maintain continuity and familiarity with the players (Rivoire, 2007).  This enabled Wenger to gain the trust of the players whilst slowly implementing changes (Bolchover & Brady, 2006).  Similar to when he took over at Monaco, at Arsenal he was balancing implementing new changes with keeping the squad members happy (Rivoire, 2007).  This is most evident in the dressing room before a game as although finding players such as former England international Ian Wright dancing and playing loud music unorthodox, he understood it was part of the culture and he had to respect habits like this whilst making the changes he felt necessary (Rivoire, 2007).  A similar situation arose when he began to modify eating habits at Arsenal, rather than taking sweets away immediately he employed a dietician who explained the benefits of the changes being made whilst Wenger was replacing sweets with dietary supplements he learned from his time at Grampus Eight in Japan (Rivoire, 2007).

Bass (1990) also states that a transformational seeks to instil pride in their followers and gain their respect and trust.  Wenger views this as one of the most important areas of leadership and stated that it is essential for his players to have complete faith in him, even when he does not have faith in himself (Rivoire, 2007).  The model demonstrates that a transformational leader engages followers in a way that encourages them to motivate each other and mutually work together to achieve the club’s goals (Wright, 1996). Throughout his career, he has always focused his efforts on transmitting confidence and giving players self-belief through providing them with the opportunity to express themselves on the pitch, and this is consistent in his interviews where he claims spirit and belief have been the main factors of his team’s success (Rivoire, 2007; Wenger, 2011c).  Through the culture he develops within a team he puts full belief into his players as he believes they will always do their best for the team (Rivoire, 2007).  For this reason Wenger has often been seen to field a team consisting of players who have more of an impact on the team rather than higher ability players such as Tony Adams and former Brazil international Gilberto Silva (Rivoire, 2007).  Such is his belief in his player’s abilities when right back Lee Dixon was injured he played a young centre midfielder called Remi Garde in that position despite never playing there before telling him that he understands the team’s dynamics and is capable of playing there.  This proved successful with Wenger telling Garde after the game “here you go, it’s not all that complicated, is it?” (Rivoire, 2007).

Another way Wenger gains the respect of those around him is through his protection of his players.  Regardless of the situation he always supports and protects his players and when Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas was accused of asking the referee if he took a bribe during a game with Everton in 2011 Wenger claimed it was wrong for Everton manager David Moyes to publically accuse Fabregas and stated that it was him and not Fabregas who spoke to the referee at half time (Wenger, 2011c).  Another example of this protection is that although Arsenal have not won a trophy since 2005 he stated that being able to give their best throughout the season has made his team an “absolutely amazing young team” (Wenger, 2011e).

Lussier & Achua (2001) state that intelligence concerns the cognitive ability to solve problems, think critically and make decisions, another characteristic closely associated with the transformational leader (Bass, 1990).  Throughout his footballing life Wenger has always been obsessed with football even as a young coach at AS Mutzig he would travel to games throughout France and West Germany with Max Hild (Rivoire, 2007; Wenger, 2010).  Wenger saw Hild as his first mentor and every night after training they would discuss different aspects of football.  This has had a major influence on Wenger who has always been eager to learn and would always ask and listen intently to Hild’s thoughts on the game any time he visited London (Rivoire, 2007).

From a young age Wenger’s parents always encouraged him to focus on education and as a result he did not fully devote himself to football until after his playing career was finished (Rivoire, 2007; Bolchover & Brady, 2006).  At the age of 25 and whilst playing for Mulhouse he obtained a degree in economics from the University of Strasbourg and also holds a degree in engineering (Bolchover & Brady, 2006; Wenger, 2010).  He is a highly educated individual who enjoys reading biographies, history and politics, but it is within football he has excelled in gaining an education (Rivoire, 2007).  Rather than focusing on football alone, he likes to surround himself with professionals from a range of professions including dieticians, fitness experts and doctors (Rivoire, 2007).  By doing this he has developed a knowledge of each of these areas which enables him to hold an intellectual conversation.  This has also helped him make better decisions on the needs of his players.  For example, when French international Robert Pires tore ligaments Wenger sent him to a specialist in Strasbourg who diagnosed that he would play no further part in the 2001/02 season (Rivoire, 2007).

In order to be able to properly communicate with people Wenger felt it was important to speak a number of languages and being raised in a multi-lingual environment prompted him to explore a range of languages and he is now fluent in English, French and German and can communicate effectively in Spanish and Portugese.  He also claims that if he had not learned the English language he would never have been offered a position at Arsenal (Revoire, 2007).

Wenger finished his playing career in 1979 at Racing Club in Strasbourg and between 1981 and 1983 he was in charge of the reserve team and youth set up at the club and at the age of 32 he knew his strengths lay in coaching (Rivoire, 2007).  This prompted him to begin to study for his coaching badges at the Regional Centre for Popular Sports Education (CREPS) in Strasbourg and gained his coaching diploma in 1981, during which he began to apply and practice the methods he had been learned under Paul Frantz from his time at Mulhouse (Bolchover & Brady, 2006; Rivoire, 2007).  As a player Wenger was never a sensation but he was fascinated with tactics and was constantly striving to know everything he could about all aspects of the game from tactics to team strategy (Rivoire, 2007).  This enabled him to gather as much knowledge and experience as he could which is essential for any leader (Burke & Cooper, 2006).

The term rationality can be defined as the ability to think and act in a reliable way and remaining open to reason through considering both sides of an argument (Fiske et al, 2010).  Bass (1990) suggests this is a characteristic commonly found within a transformational leader.  Evidence suggests however that this is perhaps the main area where Wenger goes against the model and often finds himself in a difficult situation.  Ordinarily Wenger is a calm character and even when games are threatening to boil over this is a quality he is able to maintain.  He views this as one of his strengths as he believes portraying an image of calmness can instil confidence into this team, supporting Daft’s (2008) statement that the emotions of a leader are contagious and keeping a calm persona can portray optimism in difficult situations (Rivoire, 2007).  This ability however, is not limited to himself and at Grampus Eight in Japan he allowed players to take hot baths before a game as it is thought to calm players nerves, a method which would be deemed unthinkable in France (Rivoire, 2007).  In this instance Wenger’s emotions finally got the better of him when after losing eight games he became angry and began questioned whether the players considered themselves as professionals or not (Rivoire, 2007).

Perhaps the most famous instance of Arsene Wenger’s irrational behaviour is when he spoke out after Eduardo’s leg break as a result of Martin Taylor’s challenge in a game against Birmingham in 2008.  Arsene Wenger quickly gave his opinion on the situation by claiming that Taylor “should never play football again” (Wenger, 2008a).  Wenger also claimed that this was a result teams having to rely on bad tackles to stop Arsenal (Wenger, 2008a).  These statements were later retracted by the Arsenal manager who admitted his comments were excessive and were said in the heat of the moment (Wenger, 2008b).

One Monaco player Claude Puel claimed that whilst Wenger would occasionally become angry, pressure very rarely got the better of him (Rivoire, 2007).  However, in 2006 he was fined £10,000 for aggressive behaviour after pushing West Ham manager Alan Pardew after his team were beaten one nil.  Wenger accepted this fine and on reflection admitted that he had over-reacted (Wenger, 2006).

Another characteristic of a transformational leader is providing personal attention and treating each individual equally (Bass, 1990).  This is an area Wenger would appear to excel in and although a young George Weah felt Wenger was interfering too much into his personal life he later claimed it all paid off (Rivoire, 2007).  Throughout his career Wenger has always maintained an interest and personal contact with his players.  When he met with former England centre half Tony Adams to discuss Adams’ alcohol addiction, Wenger was highly sympathetic and keen to listen to what he had to say (Rivoire, 2007).  Growing up with his parents running a pub in Alsace may have had an influence on this as he has seen the negative influence alcohol can have on people (Rivoire, 2007).  When presented to the media for the first time as Arsenal manager he protected Adams along with Paul Merson who was also struggling with alcohol addition by refusing to comment on the issue (Rivoire, 2007).

Whilst remaining a highly personal person who prefers to keep his private and work lives separate he always ensures he takes an interest in his players lives (Rivoire, 2007).  This enables him to understand his players and their motivations much more clearly.  It also helped him establish whether or not they buy into the culture he has created (Rivoire, 2007).  Much like he currently does at Arsenal, with Monaco he would ask the foreign players about their lives back home and the happiness of their families.  However, he would do this whilst remaining enigmatic and slightly distant (Rivoire, 2007).

If a player made a mistake within a game he would refuse to criticise them publically or in front of the other team members.  After the 2011 League Cup Final with Birmingham he refused to blame goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny or defender Laurent Koscielny for their misunderstanding leading to a Birmingham goal (Wenger, 2001d).  Instead, he prefers to speak to players on an individual basis as is evident when French international Silvain Wiltord repeatedly entered training late and Wenger took him aside for a quiet word rather than ridiculing him in front of the group (Rivoire, 2007).

Unlike a transactional leader who avoids responsibility and decision making, Wenger insists that a manager should be the only decision maker in order to handle egos at the club (Rivoire, 2007).  This extends to the transfer policy adopted under Wenger of unearthing young talent such as Theirry Henry, Robert Pires and Jack Wilshere rather than spending vast amounts of money on players like Chelsea have with players like Spanish international forward Fernando Torres (Rivoire, 2007; Wenger, 2011b).  When at home Wenger likes to watch and analyse football games and a lot of his decision making is assisted through video analysis, whether it is searching for a new player or deciding which player should play on match days (Wenger, 2009).  Therefore he ensures he has as much knowledge as possible before making a decision and that that decision is justified.

Bass (1990) states that a transformational leader coaches and advises their followers, unlike transactional leadership where responsibilities are abdicated to someone else.  Wenger closely follows this theory as he conducts most of the training himself.  However, he does not conduct pre-match and training warm ups or fitness training.  Warm ups are conducted by Boro Primarac who has been ever present in Wenger’s team as he was relied upon to help Wenger adapt to the culture during his time in Japan (Rivoire, 2007).  With the amount of tasks Wenger conducts he holds a large amount of responsibility and admits that he feels responsible for any poor team performances and defeats and after his first managerial defeat against Lens he had to stop the team bus on the journey home to vomit (Rivoire, 2007).

In conclusion, Arsene Wenger can very much be categorised as a transformational leader as he can be seen as a forward-thinker who creates a vision and culture within the team he is leading.  He is a highly intelligent individual who immerses himself in football and strives to know everything he can about all aspects of the game both on and off the pitch to develop his players.  It can be seen however, that whilst he remains calm in most situations there are occasions where his emotions can lead him to make irrational decisions such as his reaction to Mark Taylor’s tackle on Eduardo.

3 Responses to “Arsene Wenger: Leadership”

  1. Daniel Simpson says:

    Thanks Tim. I hope you all enjoy take the time to read and all comments are welcome

  2. Rickard Engstrom says:

    Brilliant article mate.
    For an Arsenal fan studying sport science this was the most read-worthy article I’ve come across in a long time.

    Thanks!

  3. David Sowemimo-Henry says:

    Wenger needs to buy Defenders now and Central Defence Mid or I will want him sacked like everyone else

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