What Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino and the Hollywood of the seventies tell us about Arsenal
Arsène Wenger shocked Nick Hornby on their introduction back in 1996. And it wasn't for the usual reasons. The writer didn't suddenly realise there were hidden depths to this 'unknown' who, as the common line had it, looked more like a professor than a football manager.
Quite the opposite.
Wenger had actually read Hornby's book Fever Pitch but hadn't noticed any other works by him. So the new Arsenal manager enquired as to how an author could make a living if he wasn't writing books. Hornby explained that he was, just not about football.
"It was beyond Arsène's conception," Hornby later said, "you would want to write anything other than a football book."
It's for reasons like that many other managers became irritated at the image Wenger supposedly cultivated as a Renaissance Man. While Martin O'Neill would indulge his obsession with true crime and Alex Ferguson pursuits like the piano and jazz, both at one stage sneered at the perception of "the all-knowing Arsene Wenger". By contrast, the Arsenal manager tends to just watch matches late into the night. As one insider put it in Jasper Rees's biography Wenger, he has very few other interests.
It's unlikely, then, that Wenger has read Richard Biskind's Easy Riders Raging Bulls, but that account of the directors' movement in 1970s Hollywood could serve as a cautionary tale.
Just as a group of grandiose "football men" — as Hugh McIlvanney put it — in Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein redefined the role of the manager in the 1960s, so a generation of precocious young directors saw themselves as auteurs whose films represented their personal creative vision. What's the cliché about a successful team reflecting the personality of their manager?
And, in the same way that those managers traversed British football's eternally difficult distinction between directors of football and first-team coaches, the auteurs envisioned themselves as directors, producers and screenwriters all in one. But they still had to battle to achieve that vision.
Early on, Biskind's book details the difficulties Francis Ford Coppola had making The Godfather. The old guard weren't impressed with the young upstart's new ideals. Above him, Coppola had the studio looking constantly to replace his young unknowns with bankable stars: Robert Redford for Al Pacino was one demand. Below him, Coppola had a hard-bitten film crew unwilling to indulge his artistic pretensions. In that atmosphere, he had to fight for and compromise on everything.
But, as Biskind wrote, "the old cliché turned out to be true. The tension proved creative... The Godfather was like a jolt of electricity for the industry."
The film's subsequent success helped create an attitude that, for a time, achieved the perfect balance between high profits and high culture. Directors enjoyed influence like never before in Hollywood. Gradually, though, that balance tipped from influence to unquestioned indulgence. And that eventually led to Michael Cimino — "puffed up by his Oscars, stubborn and megalomaniacal" — directing the overblown disaster that was Heaven's Gate. Left to his own devices, Cimino made the film that killed the movement.
We're by no means comparing that calamity to Wenger's current team. Apart from anything else, the Arsenal manager would never have countenanced Cimino's contract stipulation that he could go as far over budget as he wanted.
But the two men would have shared a similar elevation of ideals. And there is a strong argument that, in the same way as the auteur movement, Wenger's initial successes at Arsenal have led to a situation where he is now over-indulged to the detriment of winning trophies. It's not even a question of nice football or nurturing young players. It's a question of someone occasionally saying 'no'.
As the former Arsenal player Stewart Robson recently argued, "Wenger actually runs the club like a dictatorship." Does he, in fact, need resistance to maximise his own beliefs?
Those early trophies at Highbury, after all, involved scores of compromises. Not conflicts per se, but an awful lot of accommodation. Wenger may have arrived in England with approaches that transformed the Premier League, but, initially, he had to adapt them around what he had. Perhaps that process carved out optimum teams?
Take the most suspect part of the 2010-11 side: the defence. Its average age was 26. And, the injury to Thomas Vermaelen notwithstanding, it often lacked an essential assurance.
When Wenger first came to Arsenal, by contrast, he was presented with a backline that was, on average, 31. Because of his analysis that athletes begin to wane physically beyond 30, he initially planned to get rid of them. To create, in essence, a defence that fitted more with his philosophies.
Then, however, Wenger began to see the effect his conditioning had on them. Both Steve Bould and Tony Adams spoke of suddenly feeling years younger. Similarly, they began to thrive under his training.
"He was surprised how good we were as footballers," Lee Dixon explained. "He'd thought we were like robots just doing what we were told [under George Graham]. So when he tried to expand our game, we were able to do it."
The point here is not to repeat old compliments for Wenger's groundbreaking conditioning but to emphasise his "surprise" — as Dixon put it — at that old backline's new success. Given what they achieved thereafter, it's all the more interesting that Wenger refused to repeat the approach. Because, rather than improve the all-round game of existing defenders as he did then, he now mostly introduces young technical players to defensive positions. In that sense, he's reversed his approach from the early days. It is just possible that the battle-hardened experience of that classic Arsenal defence provided the perfect complement to Wenger's purism.
On a similar note, there was the evolution of Ray Parlour. Previously a mere workhouse, he suddenly became "turbo-charged" under the new training. But Wenger also spotted something else. While Parlour wasn't blessed with Marc Overmars's sleekness, the manager realised he took the ball on much more smoothly when receiving it at a certain angle. So Wenger got the rest of the team to play it to him that way. The result was Arsenal's attack became swifter but the team as a whole kept Parlour's endeavour. Again, it was the best of both approaches. Wenger's ideals were given an edge.
That mixture of revolution and evolution, old values and new ideas, eventually culminated in the 2003-04 Invincibles season. For a time, it was the perfect balance. That title also marked the meeting point of two eras. Before it, as evidenced by the presence of stalwarts like Martin Keown, Arsenal were a grand old club that Wenger was guiding. After it, they were emphatically his club.
Instead of adapting his beliefs and thereby actually enhancing them, he began to impose them. And, rather than polish rough diamonds as he did so successfully throughout his career up to 2005, Wenger now ensures almost every player fits a physical and stylistic ideal. Thanks to an economist's appreciation of stats, Wenger pores over the numbers to find the arrangements that produce supposedly optimum performance. The idea is seamlessly to design the perfect team. Undoubtedly, there has been much to admire in it. But the reality is often a lot of identikit — if, admittedly, exquisite — players.
The problem was best indicated by his reported long prevarication over Shay Given. Although the Irish keeper may not be in the very top echelon of his position, he would surely have offered a solidity that Manuel Almunia lacked. Instead, the Spaniard had the 6'2" frame that Given lacked. By about an inch, apparently, the keeper didn't fit Wenger's ideal for the position. And therefore didn't fit the club.
But, in the end, neither did Almunia. In that, there's a further parallel with Biskind's account of the self-described auteur Bob Rafelson's slump. After the outstanding success of his Five Easy Pieces — famous for Jack Nicholson's diner scene — Rafelson's confidence in his casting instincts "knew no bounds". But Julie Robinson's halting acting ability did. Against all advice, Rafelson cast her for The King of Marvin Gardens. "Nobody wanted him to cast Julie," the writer Jack Brackman said. "Bob had a wild hair up his ass, an instinct that he was going to go with. He had a hard time acknowledging it was incorrect."
Sounds familiar. To borrow a line from another film, Wenger's attitude is "too bound by the parameters of perfection". Although the maths involved may balance for him, football often doesn't. There are too many invariables. Success requires something else that Wenger's current approach lacks. And that possibly explains why he seems to have about 90% of Arsenal right. But it's still the flaws in the remaining 10% that have prevented them making the key breakthrough.
Take his teams' notorious issues with confidence. There are two trends from throughout Wenger's managerial career that emphasise it. The first is that he has never retained a title. The second is that defeats have routinely come in pairs. Note the slump even the Invincibles endured after Manchester United ended their 49-game unbeaten run in October 2004. Evidently, once that confidence is broken, it requires deep rebuilding.
According to the writers of the acclaimed Arsènal, Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher, this is a result of the exact type of training ground London Colney has become. With so many imports of similar attributes, the idea is to create an environment where players can just express themselves. Eventually, the school of thought is, sleek football becomes second-nature.
One former coach described it as "like a finishing school". And Wenger himself reinforced this image a few months ago when he argued that "for the English, sport is combat. They can't go to battle without a general. For the French, football is a form of collective expression."
The problem, however, is when equally strong opposition teams attempt to interrupt that expression. "As a result of enhancing the attributes Wenger holds dear — pace, power, skill, creative thinking and desire," Fynn and Whitcher wrote, "victory should be the natural consequence. Losing is not contemplated and therefore everyone — players and coaches alike — are dumbfounded when it happens. The 'unbelievable faith' coined by Paul Merson has a flip side when the faith is punctured. There seems no fallback position from which to regroup. A collective trauma invades. It is as if they have forgotten how to react positively to a defeat, so unexpected is it. Wenger may be a master manager, but it seems that he has no solutions when the unthinkable happens, no way of countering the doubt when the infallibility is disproved."
One way was the character inherent in the likes of Emmanuel Petit. Indeed, Cesc Fabregas alluded to this in April when making a comparison between the current side and the Invincibles. "If you made a mistake," he said, "there was always someone to make it up for you."
Now, there are few who fill in the gaps in Wenger's philosophy.
Interestingly, when United Artists executives began to become so concerned with the budget on Heaven's Gate that they visited the set, "they were stunned by its beauty". It wasn't enough to save a film devoid of spirit. No one filled the gaps.
Ultimately, perhaps Wenger was better off placing his beliefs on a club top down — as he did at the start at Arsenal — rather than implementing them bottom up. Because, in being allowed to smooth away all the edges in the creation of his ideal, Wenger has sacrificed the impurities that enhanced it.
Yet there is maybe another reason that Wenger's own cinematic narrative increasingly resembles a hubristic Greek tragedy rather than a story of redemption. Just as Sonny Corleone's death scene in The Godfather no longer shocks, the methods which gave Wenger such an edge in the mid-90s are no longer so unique. Every team now applies science to their preparation; many others possess youth systems as productive. And while it's open to debate whether more teams play better football than Arsenal, the likes of Barcelona have complemented it with a new level of craft.
But films like The Godfather long outlived the seventies movement, of course, because of their core qualities. Despite Coppola's undoubtedly inspired contribution, it was a deeper, collaborative effort. The director later worried that "he was a better adapter than a creator of original material". It's possible the same may apply to Wenger. And, if he doesn't realise it, he may forever find himself at his own heaven's gate.
This article appeared on Episode Sixty Four of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.