At 95 minutes in length, Arsène Wenger: Invincible is the third football-related documentary from director Gabriel Clarke (co-directing here with Christian Jeanpierre). 2018’s Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager was a thoughtful work cross-cutting different eras of the late-England boss’s managerial career, while 2020’s Finding Jack Charlton was a deeply affecting look at the last months of a man suffering with dementia and generally unable to remember the key events of his life. The former came after the death of the subject, while the latter featured a man no longer truly with us.
Here, the film’s subject is immediately front and centre, with Arsène Wenger, now in his early 70s, opening the film with some thoughts on football, on how it is a scary thought that his life has been committed entirely to this one area. This is followed by his last match in charge at the Emirates in 2018 (Arsenal’s home ground, and the closing of his 22 years as manager of the club). We hear the record of his ‘invincibles’ being read out, and the sadness of Wenger reflecting on the fact that the crowd who were cheering him were showing love only at the moment of his professional ‘death’.
From there the film moves around Wenger’s life and career rather briskly. We see Duttlenheim, the village in Alsace in which he grew up. We meet his sister-in-law, Bernadette, who talks about their parents’ generation and their essentially buttoned-up nature, leading to some strange stances on morality – such as not marrying outside of the village. This is intercut with David Dein, a former executive at Arsenal, discussing his first meeting with Arsène (in 1989) followed by his decision to hire him seven years later. They key point of all of this – it seems – is that English football had no experience of foreign coaches finding success in the game, while the Wenger family had no experience of living outside of its small town.
Arsène and Arsenal were breaking new ground for both of them. The most enjoyable section of the film covers his early days in England: the ‘university lecturer’ look that Wenger had at that time, the lack of name recognition in the English game, and the general physical clumsiness that led to striker Ian Wright referring to him as ‘Clouseau’. Crosscut with reminiscences about his work in Monaco and Japan, pre-England, many of the Arsenal team of the time appear to describe Wenger’s dramatic effect in extending their careers, with new ideas on training and nutrition.
Within a year of his appointment, Blair is elected Prime Minister, and Cool Britannia is in full swing. Wenger links this to London becoming more cosmopolitan, and the film certainly does try to contrast the English ‘spines’ of his earlier sides, with the far more multicultural offerings as time went by. The film continues to be haphazard in approach, as we get hints at issues in his private life, with no explanation of what they were (it isn’t our business, but why bring it up in that case?), while we meet the players – Anelka, Vieira, Petit – that represented his earliest and possibly most important signings (pre-Thierry Henry). Through this, the film is still referring back to Monaco and the match fixing scandal engulfing Marseille in the early 90s. Arsène describes how, as a manager, he continued to prepare as though still a player: not going out 48-hrs before a game and living something of a hermit’s existence.
After a section of the film concentrating on his rivalry with Manchester United and their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson – who is interviewed here – we get a large section of the film devoted to the ‘invincibles’. This refers to the 2003-2004 season where his team went undefeated in the league for the entire season, as part of an unbeaten run of 49 games. As Arsène reflects upon the fact that his father never chose to say “well done” to his son, it is clear that this perfectionism had been bred into him at a very young age, with his stated aim to go unbeaten for a whole season having been expressed by him a whole year ahead of the start of the run.
“Highbury my soul, the Emirates my suffering.” These were Wenger’s words when reflecting upon the club’s move in 2006 from their Highbury home to the new 60,000-seater stadium. This was planned as an affordable £200 million project, but it ran to well over £400 million. By 2007 he could see the lack of investment and wanted to leave. Dein convinced him to say, but it was never the same again for him. He explains that finishes of first or second became third or fourth, and that where players had left the club around the age of 30, they were now looking to move on at around 25-years of age.
Despite saying that he felt that his best work was in period 2006-2015, others express the view that events on the pitch became more technical, too technical, while Wenger was describing a fourth-place finish as like winning a trophy – not what fans wanted to hear. Ian Wright reflects that Arsène’s essential kindness was taken for weakness. We hear dissenting voices, those who wanted him out and felt he was staying for a paycheque. It is balanced, with Sir Alex feeling that these supporters should be ashamed. With the film coming full circle back to his final day – which Arsène describes as “a funeral”. He reflects that everyone was nice that day a week after criticising. The emotions are clear to see, and make the film a deeply sad watch, despite being a biography of a man in good health, with decent wealth, and still with a good job in football (his role with FIFA not discussed here). Final moments are his life now – not the FIFA role.
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Although there is a sadness to Arsène Wenger: Invincible, it doesn’t have the pathos of a fading Jack Charlton or the late Bobby Robson; the man still plays football, goes for runs and lives idyllically. With a name that implies the focus with be either on his life as a whole or his work with the 2003-2004 team, it ends up doing neither fully, and ending up trying to open up a man who values privacy too much to allow that to happen. Whilst it is sad that he would admit that emotionally he never left Arsenal, the fact that the lack of warmth in the current relationship means that he never visits the club doesn’t quite have the impact we might expect; possibly because this is not structured as a love story between man and club. Never less than watchable, it is hard, however, to know what the goals of the filmmakers were here.
Arsène Wenger: Invincible is out in Cinemas from 12th November, and on Blu-ray and DVD on 22nd November.