Arsene Wenger on the future of football - the next step is to train a player's brain
After pioneering a 25-year revolution in the physical preparation of footballers, Arsene Wenger has predicted that neuroscience will unlock the next major evolution in professional players.
Now 71, Wenger said that he was still trying to “anticipate the next step” in the ongoing improvement of footballers and he believes that vast advancements around diet and physical fitness have left one obvious untapped area for specialist coaches.
“We have gone from the football player to the athlete-football player with the measurement of the physical performances,” said Wenger. “All the players who could not produce the quantity demanded have been kicked out of the game. Because of the physical qualities, the space available and the time available to make decisions has been reduced.
“We have seen from feet to head everything has improved. The physical time dedicated to improve is now limited. Maybe the next step is to see what's going on in the brain. The next step could be speed of decision-making, quality of information taken and the flexibility of decision making.”
In that, Wenger said he had already been shown three-dimensional technology which enables players to train their brains so that their anticipation, vision and split-second choices are sharpened.
“I see the next step being technology used to train our brain,” he said. “We could see that in three-dimensional training. [Where] you can put your ‘helmet’ on and see the game in your position, and practice your brain to make quick decisions, to anticipate what's going on. It looks quite impressive when you are in. You can put the right-back in his position, and see the exact same vision as he has when he is in the game.
“The vision factor, and the quality of information you get before you get the ball, will certainly be a decisive evolution. The modern manager has to be very open minded to all kinds of influence that can make him better. You must always try to move forward.”
Wenger was previously among the first coaches to use psychologists and mannequins in training sessions, before famously overhauling the diets and physical training of players at Arsenal when he arrived in England in 1996.
He will be speaking on Thursday alongside basketball legend Magic Johnson and former Netflix director Patty McCord during a summit about learning and development. For all the innovation, Wenger believes that people-management and human interaction remain the most important single factors in leadership.
“You must detect a person’s qualities and aspirations and make sure their needs are met,” he said. “We all want to know where we could be and where we could go. We all want to be better. We underestimate communication.
“Sometimes you feel the individual initiative is reduced in favour of everybody being absolutely 100 percent in the model. I think to get that balance right you have to consider as well the potential of players.
“If someone has a very creative part and limited stamina and power — and you make him run like mad every time you lose the ball — he will not be capable to express his talent anymore. The game is to find the right balance between the global collective rules and individual freedom to express yourself.”
Wenger also says that a key managerial challenge is to “accept the stress” in making decisions — by mixing intuition, experience and data — without ever knowing if your choices are correct. “At some stage you have to decide and accept making the decision,” he said. “I tried always to be rational but you never completely know. The rationality of a decision has increased phenomenally. At the start of my career, it was all down to my subjectivity. At the end of my spell at Arsenal, you were surrounded by science and had more objective measuring. You also manage more downwards at the start. At the end you manage the team around the team and you have to manage upwards as well to convince the fans and the media.”
In his current role as Fifa’s chief of global football development, Wenger has been creating an online platform to educate coaches in pursuit of what is now his overriding purpose. “The goal is to give a chance to every child in the world to play football in good conditions - to give a chance to talented people to achieve something,” he said. “For example. [Kylian] Mbappe, is one of the best players in the world. If he was born in Cameroon, would he have the same possibilities to raise to the potential of now?
“The untapped potential is unbelievable. We have 211 countries [in Fifa]. Of those, 133 countries have never been at the World Cup. A country for example like Finland has never been. I think I can use what I have learned in my life in a positive way. There is a time for everything. I will certainly not have times to finish the work, but I will start it. There is huge work to do.”