There was a warm appreciative grin etched across David Wagner’s face in the pre-match presser when a question arose about his managerial opponent tonight, Arsene Wenger.
David Wagner’s respect for Arsene Wenger was explicit as he stated, “I will meet Arsene Wenger for the first time tomorrow. He’s a managerial legend, a living legend and it’s exciting for us to play against him and his team”.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise as much of the radical work that Arsene Wenger pioneered is at the very heart of David Wagner’s success.
Both managers could be described as radical in their own right, as they have both superimposed their methods onto English football with great success.
When Arsene Wenger arrived in the Premier League, the young bespectacled enthusiastic coach was, at the time, one of two foreign coaches in the entirety of the league.
Having dismissed the vitriol and scepticism surrounding foreign managers in the Premier League by proving many critics wrong, Arsene Wenger almost single-handedly proved just how advantageous it can be turning to a foreign coach.
Twenty one years later and it is now David Wagner who is entering the Premier League as the young bespectacled enthusiastic coach with big ideas and big ambition and the similarities between the two managers are apparent.
As a young coach, Arsene Wenger showed that he wasn’t daunted by the prospect of bringing about a culture change even to a Premier League club and he did exactly that through the major changes he made to Arsenal’s training methods.
On the training ground was where Arsene’s renaissance began as his focus during pre-season shifted entirely from tradition to that of science.
Gone were the half-hearted warm ups and intense focus on stamina and in its place, Arsene Wenger introduced a number of short-burst technical drills.
As well as a different approach on the training pitch, Arsene Wenger also took a hands-on approach as he introduced osteopathy, acupuncture and even went to the extent of re-designing Arsenal’s training ground.
This sudden switch of method and the wholesale changes made by this ambitious young Frenchman were questioned even by some of the key figures of his dressing room as Lee Dixon’s account states:
“I recall Tony Adams and myself, in our first Wenger pre-season, going to see the boss just before the start of the campaign. Our feeling was that we had not done enough running. We were concerned that the team wouldn’t be fit enough. The manager calmly explained to us that it was all scientific and that the team would be fine”
Whilst Arsenal would go on to win the double that season, Arsene Wenger had taken a major risk. It would have taken only one or two key members of the Arsenal dressing room to be alienated by this approach and the young Frenchman would have lost the dressing room and, more than likely, his job.
Fast-forward twenty years or so and David Wagner was, very much in the same boat as Arsene Wenger once was, when he took over at Huddersfield Town.
There was much scepticism about the appointment of David Wagner. The bubbly German head coach had no experience of England or the Championship and conceded that he didn’t even know where Huddersfield was.
However, with the burden of being Huddersfield’s first ever foreign head coach in their one hundred and nine year history, the German faced a difficult decision.
It was apparent that change was needed. However, David Wagner admitted that he had to have a frank discussion between himself and Christopher Buhler before going forward with his radical changes:
“(We dicussed) whether we wanted to make a radical change right away or whether we wanted to do it step by step. We chose radical because we knew we only had one chance”
This decision saw a number of radical changes from the very beginning. That was a risk in itself, in a trigger-happy culture where managerial firings are common place, Wagner did only have one chance to impose his radical changes.
He began like Arsene did, on the training ground. Wagner introduced double training sessions which mirrored when the side would be playing the match itself. There was also pre-activation training sessions run on the morning of match-days.
Like Wenger once did, Wagner faced a potential mutiny. However, even David Wagner was surprised by how receptive his group of players were to change.
The changes went well beyond his methods on the training pitch. The arrival of Dr John Iga saw the switch from tradition to sport science as Wagner elected to put his degree in Biology and Sports Science to good use.
However, the most infamous change that Wagner implemented was his team-building exercises. David Wagner asked the question, ‘How can we make the players bind together very quickly?’, the result was taking his squad to a small uninhabited Swedish island.
Recounting the tale:
“We went to Sweden for four days and three nights and we didn’t bring a ball. We were really in the wild, no electricity, no toilet, no bed, no mobile phone or internet. If you are hungry, take your rod and get a fish. If you are thirsty, go to the lake and put your bottle in. If you are cold, make a fire.
“We had three guides with us to help, but if you are always together, in a two-man tent or eight hours a day in a two-man canoe – and we always rotated the pairings – then you have to speak to each other. I am convinced that the better you know your mate off the pitch, the more you are able to work for him on it in uncomfortable situations.
“They changed their borderlines over those three days. I can say now, three months later, that it was 100% success, and that is the feedback from the players, too.”
Whilst it was an unusual approach and one that you won’t find in any coaching handbook, Wagner’s approach created a sense of togetherness that played its part in Town’s fairy-tale promotion to the Premier League.
Coinciding with the radical changes made on the training ground and the switch from tradition to science, both managers also made a concerted effort to change the dietary habits of their players.
In an interview, Arsene Wenger reminisced about the issues he faced after his very first game:
“I changed a few habits of the players, which isn’t easy in a team with an average age of 30 years – at the first match the players were chanting, ‘We want our Mars bars!'”
“At half-time, I asked my physio Gary Lewin, ‘Nobody is talking, what’s wrong with them?’ He replied, ‘They’re hungry.’ I hadn’t given them their chocolate before the game. It was funny.”
It was this anecdote that has since been dubbed as the ‘Mars Bars revolt’ which became symbolic of the way Wenger changed his players’ dietary habits.
Similarly, with the arrival of Dr John Iga came the appointment of a nutritionist and a chef that travels with the squad to all away games to cook bespoke meals of good nutrition.
This led to Huddersfield captain Tommy Smith joking that the only way to get ketchup is to “sneak it in”.
Whilst this isn’t quite the mars bar revolt that Arsene Wenger faced, it was symbolic of the way that David Wagner had brought about a culture change which affected all aspects of player life, including their dietary habits.
As Arsene Wenger’s once radical methods have now become common place, only the test of time will determine whether or not David Wagner’s methods will go the same way.
Although I can’t see too many sides making the decision to strand their side on an uninhabited Swedish island for four days, I can see the idea of training sessions mirroring the match itself becoming the norm for many clubs.
Having highlighted the challenges and pitfalls both managers have faced in revolutionising their respected clubs and bringing about a much-needed culture change, tonight will be a special occasion as we get to watch the battle commence between two radical managers, one old and one new.