In August 2013, Arsène Wenger was under pressure. Sections of the fans were threatening a revolt after an embarrassing defeat in the opening match of the season, 3-1 at home to Aston Villa. There were loud demands for the signing of a world-class striker, too.
Wenger knew he could ill-afford another poor result away to Fulham. He decided to take an unusual line in the team talk. “Today, I want you to play like this animal,” the Frenchman told his players at Craven Cottage, picking up a pen to draw a wolf onto the tactics board.
“I want you to be aggressive, to bite, to hunt in packs today, like wolves” Wenger demanded. The players listened with a sense of surprise. There were no more detailed instructions.
In the event, the Gunners won 3-1 with a convincing performance and a brace from Lukas Podolski, who took delight in making howling noises in the dressing room. Wenger, too, was very pleased with the way his side had responded to the unexpected challenge.
The point of this story is not to poke fun at Wenger’s wolf pack tactics. Plenty of managers have used gimmicks, video clips or special props - including a real live eagle in the dressing room (Klaus Toppmöller at Eintracht Frankfurt) - in an effort to jolt players who’ve heard it all before. The point of this story is the fact that it’s never come out, until now.
Many top European coaches and Premier League managers in particular – work in total secrecy. Their training sessions cannot be watched. Their dressing room talks are never heard. There’s a culture of omertá, of silence: players are strongly urged not to talk about what’s happening behind the scenes.
The protection of trade secrets is to an extent justifiable, as is a need to practise in peace, without the possibly disruptive presence of the media and fans. But more often than not, the emphasis on confidentiality is just a means to exert control: managers isolate themselves from any proper scrutiny of their methods that way. Without transparency, there’s no accountability.
Thus, analysis (by journalists or fans) becomes a guessing game. Did the team play poorly because they’re low on moral fibre, simply not good enough, or perhaps woefully under-prepared by coach who spends most of the week golfing?
Unfortunately, Premier League players have been raised to put up and shut up. The omertá culture even encompasses former players, they’re reluctant to come clean about ex-superiors who gave them well-paid contracts. As a result, we - the public - have only a rudimentary idea of the real coaching qualities of the coaches.
We can judge them on results, on net spend (a pretty irrelevant number), on points-percentage, on their team’s playing style, on their press conference demeanour and touchline appearance; in other words: on superficialities and on outcomes, on things that they can often not directly influence, but ironically not on process, the one thing they can directly influence, every single day.
That leaves the door open for chancers and lazies, especially at clubs without any football expertise above the manager. All they have to do is manage expectations and deliver the required minimum of results in-line with them. And even if they don’t, they might get three or four more jobs because their poor work has not been debunked.
One Premier League midfielder approached his manager before a key game to ask whether he and his teammate in the middle of the park were supposed to press the opposition or sit deep to protect the back four. “You’ll sort it out on the pitch”, he was told. Unsurprisingly, his team were relegated. Maybe they could have been saved if the manager’s ineptitude had been more widely known, which could have spurred the board into making a change in good time. Even months later, the player in question would not go on the record about the rank incompetence he had witnessed on the training pitch because he felt the manager in question was a very likeable man.
To go back to Wenger, there’s little doubt that both Arsenal and himself would have immensely profited from players bringing attention to his out-dated methods, not as unattributed sources but openly, in a calm, factual manner.
Because his hands-off approach delivered trophies in the past, the natural assumption has been that the lack of success must be the players’ fault.
It’s taken over a decade for people to realise that his way of working was in fact behind the times, as no one has dared to come out and say as much. Omertá has not only kept Wenger in the job but also precluded any need to change and innovate. And now it’s too late.