Will Arsene Wenger’s managerial legacy produce disciples?

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Socrates, then Plato, then Aristotle. Those three form a trinity of Greek philosophy. One influencing the next, each having separate ideals; three tributaries flowing from one stream. It is the basis of continuity; master teaches pupil before pupil surpasses master and goes on to teach other pupils. From generation to generation, life has a consistent way of self-preservation.

In the same way, football carries that same trend. Football coaches are most of the time merely the master; their players and members of staff pupils who learn from their every move. In the end, the independent minds that are influenced by similar ideals create a nebulous quarry of football philosophy. Not one type, but several of which stem from sole ideals.

That journey is best emphasised by this Jonathan Wilson piece in The Guardian, where the triumphant passing regime of Barcelona is traced all the way to 1872. A group of footballers, assembled from the Queens Park club became the first ever Scotland team to play against England in the first ever international football game. They decided that rather than run, they would pass the ball. It became an idea that was passed downwards; through Vic Buckingham and Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola.

The complexity of it all subsists. Within what Wilson calls the Barcajax model is a vast network of football managers influenced by the system. Not all follow the ideology – as evidenced by the fact that Jose Mourinho has strayed from it. But it is a quality system that produces a significant quantity of managers.

Beyond the systems however is a group of individuals partaking in the actual development of other individuals. Thus why there will always be mention of Michels or Cruyff. Why, Jonathan Liew can write this brilliant piece in The Telegraph on how Louis van Gaal has influenced the likes of Jose Mourinho and various other European managers. Great managers do not just facilitate systems, they develop individuals as well.

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However, the Barcajax is not the only model that is influencing football management. In the late 1980s, Arrigo Sacchi’s revolutionary Milan did not fade away without legacy. Players such as Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Donadoni and Mauro Tassotti have gone on to football management (not forgetting Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, although these three Dutchmen could as well be products of the Barcajax model).

In the 1900s, the Danubian school of football can be traced from Jimmy Hogan, passing on to Hugo Meisl of the Austrian Wunderteam, and having its influence reaching as far as the Magical Magyars of Hungary and even to Sepp Herberger’s 1954 German World Cup winning team. A similar influence could be seen in the developments of Viktor Maslov and Boris Arkadiev, whose influence on football in the Soviet Union was further enhanced into modern football’s time by the thinking of Valeriy Lobanovskiy.

Bela Guttman is known more for his apparent curse on Benfica in European club cup competitions. He did however have a brief stint with Sao Paulo in Brazil, and his ideals were furthered by Vicente Feola who became the first World Cup winning manager for Brazil with a development to Brazil’s 4-2-4 system.

Across the border from Brazil, Argentina has two distinct schools of football philosophy which are based on the two men who have led Argentina to World Cup triumph. The first is Menottism, which is the expressive flowing football of Cesar Luis Menotti’s 1978 Argentine winning side. The other is the Bilardism of Carlos Bilardo, who despite having Diego Maradona in his 1986 World Cup triumph, is synonymous with structured, defensive football that leans towards minimalism.

Most of the football managers in Argentina are associated to either one of these two patriarchs. That is until you include the complexity of Bielsisme. Football’s greatest theorist of the modern age is Marcelo Bielsa – and his brand of football has influenced various managers. From Gerrardo Martino and Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino who all played for him at Newells Old Boys in the 90s, to the likes of Claudio Borghi and Jorge Sampaoli. In some sense also, his tenets of football can also be remotely seen in the football of Jurgen Klopp and Andre-Villas Boas.

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Marcelo Bielsa, football’s grand old theorist

With all this considered, it does make one wonder why all of Arsene Wenger’s good work in football has yet to produce the sort of disciples it deserves.

Football, specifically English football, has a lot to thank the Frenchman for. It may not have been as is exaggerated, but before Wenger joined the Premier League, English football was more about physical strength and robustness and less about technique and finesse. Wenger changed that slightly, and even though the English league does still value activity to an extent over the idea of the abstract, it is nowhere near where Wenger found it.

His successes have seen more belief in foreign managers being appointed and his scouting techniques have seen better and better players been signed from abroad. The question however seems to be why this has not produced an Alexandrian library or a Platonic academy of coaches with the Wenger DNA.

Not many of Wenger’s former players, or people who have worked under him have followed on into management at the top level. Perhaps, Steve Bould, who is Wenger’s assistant at Arsenal or maybe Patrick Vieira, who is managing the Manchester City Reserves will one day get there. Maybe also Dennis Bergkamp, who is currently Ajax’s assistant manager (and who’s managerial philosophy will obviously be a blend of Wengerism and Barcajax).

For now however, the closest seems to be Dragan Stojkovic. The former Yugoslav midfielder played for Wenger at Nagoya Grampus and eventually became manager of the Japanese club in 2008, winning the J-League in 2010.

Dragan Stojkovic with Arsene Wenger
Dragan Stojkovic with Arsene Wenger

It could be that Japan is where his influence is mostly felt. A football management book, “Shosha no Esprit” (Spirit of Conquest) still resonates within the Japanese football management market and there is a sense of Wengerist tendencies to how Japanese national teams play, especially the 2011 Womens World Cup winning team and the 2012 Under-23 Olympic semi-finalsits.

It does also follow the logic, that having been at their peak in the early 90s, the likes of Bielsa and van Gaal’s disciples have had time to develop into top managers. Similarly, the only current Wenger disciple in Stojkovic is a man who played for Wenger during the 90s.It thus follows that it is the time between now and the next five to ten years for Wenger’s disciples to appear – seeing as his peak is undoubtedly that Invincible season in 2004.

Not every great manager produces disciples, and it is not an obligation that all do so. But for a man of such grand ideals, it would not be a surprise if Wenger did. Only time can tell, but for now, Le Professeur’s students – if any – are still waiting to graduate.

 [all images courtesy of zimbio]
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