Book Review: My Life in Red and White – My Autobiography by Arsene Wenger
For Arsenal fans and football scholars, the release of Arsene Wenger’s first ever autobiography, My Life in Red and White, signalled a much-anticipated event, a chance to hear from the man who stamped his mark on Arsenal and the Premier League, a man who divided opinion but unquestionably brought success, a man who was notoriously private and enigmatic away from the pitch, but who wore his heart on his sleeve during matches. But those hoping for a no-holds-barred confessional, with revelations about his players, opponents and fellow managers will be disappointed. Wenger is nothing if not a principled man – as Arsenal fans will attest, either positively citing his loyalty to the club or conversely bemoaning his stubbornness to see out his contract – so it should be no real surprise that instead of a sensationalised tell-all, the autobiography is as measured, moderate and considered as the man himself, with astute observations on his own childhood and entry into football and thoughtful reflections on management and the game.
From the prologue, it becomes clear that this isn’t going to be the usual football autobiography, there’s something of a literary quality to the writing, and apologies to any other footballers or managers out there, but there’s a sense of sophistication and depth that isn’t often found in the genre, but speaks integrally of Wenger’s character. Nicknamed the professor, the suitability of that moniker is evidenced immediately, in the emergence of a man who is a deep thinker, an intense and serious character, and a dignified and humble personality, and what emerges too as Wenger takes readers through his early years is both an idiosyncratic, ambitious young man amidst a modest farming community in Alsace and a dedicated, obsessive love of the game that sets him apart. These are characteristics that were to define Wenger’s career.
As too was the notion of philosophy. That Wenger was a visionary, revolutionary of the game is unquestionable. His first years in particular at Arsenal and in English football changed the course of both, and the book explores some of his key thoughts and ideas that underpinned his management, including his expectations of players, the psychology of the game and player management.
Although the autobiography does touch on individual seasons, games and players, somewhat by necessity – it would be impossible to cover every game in a career spanning three decades in management – the book offers rather much more of an overview of the main points in his career and his reflections on them. It is interesting to hear his take on the Emirates financial balancing act and perceptive words on Mesut Ozil, as well as a frank admission that one of the great regrets of his life (not his career, his life!) was not losing van Persie to Manchester United, Henry or Fabregas to Barcelona, but Ashley Cole to Chelsea. Meanwhile, his reflections on life after Arsenal are particularly poignant.
But, sadly, there is so much that is barely touched on or skipped over altogether, and not just the small stuff, but title wins and trophies are condensed into mere paragraphs, and clashes and disappointments, transfers and injury troubles are all largely missing. Of course, to distil such a long and significant career into 300-odd pages is something of an impossibility and it begs the question whether the book should have taken a different form – after all the Invincibles period could quite rightly command an entire book on its own. So, as it is, the autobiography does feel particularly condensed, but having said that, even in this abbreviated form, readers do get a great insight into, and a sense of, the man himself. Arsene Wenger emerges very much as the intense, contemplative, conscientious character that he was so often depicted as: someone who has dedicated his life to the sport, who lived and died by results and for whom football and Arsenal really did become the centre of his universe.
Much like Arsene himself, this book will divide opinion as, in many ways, it fundamentally encapsulates the perfect dichotomy of the man. Whether you love him or loathe him, this book will do little to change those views and simply serve to reinforce them. Wenger cynics and detractors will be quick to point out his stubbornness, his blinkeredness and his inflexibility, but fans will acknowledge Wenger’s qualities for what they are: determination, relentlessness and a single-minded pursuit of success.
(W&N. October 2020. Hardback 352 pages)