Arsene Wenger: Baku Europa League final is 'a nightmare' for Arsenal and Chelsea fans

Sam Wallace
Arsene Wenger signs autographs after a football match for a children's association at the Stade de France this week - AFP

Arsene Wenger has spoken for the first time about life after Arsenal, declaring the Europa League final in Baku “a nightmare” for his former club’s fans, and condemning the circumstances in which Henrikh Mkhitaryan finds himself unable to play.

In a wide-ranging interview to accompany his investment in a football technology company, the 69-year-old spoke extensively about the past 12 months away from the game, and how he had been able to reconnect with his family having “neglected” them over 40 years in coaching. The Frenchman said that he remained a fan of his former club, who play Chelsea in the final in Azerbaijan on Wednesday, and that he still planned to take another job in football.

Wenger said that he had agreed to 10 pundit appearances for the Qatari network beIN Sports but had made it a condition not to comment on Arsenal because of his 22-year association with the club. “I watch them like a fan,” he said. “I don’t judge. I’m happy when they win and not happy when they don’t play well. But after that I try to really take a distance with it.”

He will not be in Baku for the final and said that for the supporters it was “a little bit of a nightmare”. Both clubs have been unable to sell out their ticket allocation because of Baku’s inaccessibility and Arsenal have publicly criticised the decision to award the city the final.

“It’s the same for both teams, always,” Wenger said. “A final is a final. The teams do not have such a problem. They live in ideal conditions, they have a private jet, they have nice business seats. It’s the fans [who will be affected].”

Wenger says he will return to English football 'for sure' Credit: Woody Rankin

On the subject of Mkhitaryan – who has elected in consultation with Arsenal not to play the final because of the tensions between Azerbaijan and his nation, Armenia – Wenger was unequivocal. “That’s something that should not happen in football, in the modern world,” he said. “[When] Politically, you cannot play a football game.”

Otherwise, Wenger was a good advert for a sabbatical from the game, extolling the virtue of running up to 10 kilometres a day and also being under no pressure to cut short an agreeable lunch to return to work. He has kept a low profile since leaving the club and spoke on behalf of an Israeli technology company, PlayerMaker, in which he has invested.

The partnership is to launch a motion sensor that straps on to the heel of a boot and, using artificial intelligence, measures everything from passing, to dribbling, to movement, to the power of a shot. Developed over four years, and now being sold to clubs across the world, Wenger said it appealed to his pioneering nature, having been one of the first managers to introduce data to his work in the 1980s.

His expectation this time last year was that he would be back in the game within months of leaving Arsenal, although he says that he has enjoyed the longer break. He is understood to have a long-standing offer to work in some capacity at Paris St-Germain. Wenger said: “I neglected a lot of the people around me [in 40 years in management] so I had a bit more time [since leaving Arsenal]. 

I thought as well, do I go back into that heat again? It is not so much the heat but once you go in there, there is no way out. So, I thought, ‘Let’s take a bit of time’. OK, two months [out], [then] three months. Now I have a problem to get in again! I will go back into football for sure. In what position, I don’t know. Whether that is as a manager or not. The appetite, the desire, is still there. I know what kind of life I have in front of me so I have to decide that now.”

Returning to the subject later, he said: “Originally, I said I will manage straight away again. Then I thought maybe I’d take a little distance. I came to the conclusion I want to share what I learnt in my life because I think life is only useful if at some stage you share what you know. In what way will it be? Will it be in winning football games or in another way? That’s what I have to decide, that decision will come very quickly.”

As for what he has been doing since handing over the reins to Unai Emery, Wenger said that he had much to occupy himself: “You have seen me on telly. I read a lot, do a lot of different sports, daily, so that occupies me. I travelled a lot. I did a lot of game observation, charity, many conferences on football, on management, on motivation, on the meaning of life. I personally [still] don’t know what it means. 

“It [working] was enjoyable. I was always under stress a little bit but [now] it is a good feeling that I don’t have to get up or that I don’t have to leave an interesting lunch because I have a commitment. I discovered that freedom of time. It is a good feeling.”

He is still considering whether to write his memoirs, having been inundated with offers. He was enthusiastic about technology and what it could offer footballers all over the world who did not have access to coaching. Growing up in the 1950s in the village of Duttlenheim near the Franco-German border he says he did not have a coach until he was 19. “I respected all the coaches I had,” he said, “because I knew what it is not to have a coach.”

Wenger also said that science could not cure all football’s mysteries, and a coach should always rely on his own judgment. “If you only take the physical data you’d never play Messi,” he said. “But if we were managing tomorrow, all of us would play Messi.” He joked that he looked forward to the day when we could put a microchip in “the boot and the brain”, adding that he would like one in the brains of the press, as well as players. “Then,” he said, “you can analyse yourself very quickly.”

As for his punditry, which will continue at the Champions League final in Madrid a week on Saturday, he said that he hoped he could bring some balance. “We live in a society now where only the winner gets credit and all the others are rubbish … you feel when you are not the best that you’re Mr Nobody. But real life is not like that. Sometimes when you are on TV it helps to comment ‘OK, they have won, but they could have lost’.”