The hierarchy always obeys one simple principle: he who plays well is at the top, even if he has never been a so-called leading player before. Age barely plays a role for a position within the team, either. In my last year at Arsenal, for example, at just twenty years old, Cesc Fàbregas was suddenly a very important man. I remember his first game for us, three years previously, in the Champions League away at Celta Vigo. We were standing in the lift together, his gaze glued fearfully to the floor like that of a fifth-grader on his way to the headmaster. Later, he was supposed to put a few crosses towards my goal as a warm-up but could not find any rhythm. ‘Cesc, you’re with the pros here; you should be able to manage a cross,’ I told him, resulting in his not hitting any ball at all any more. However, fast-forward a few years and he was suddenly at the top, with my task changing to telling him to stay grounded. Out of everyone in a team, it is the best ones who have to show respect to the others in order to be accepted as outstanding.
If they do not, the team cannot have maximum success, since the figurative Indians will not fight for the Chiefs. A team made up of twenty stars will still not play good football if they do not combine well with each other, both on the pitch and in private. The soft factors – a player’s wellbeing, his family’s happiness – all have a decisive impact on his performance; already at scouting level, Arsenal were attaching great importance to it, as if they were shooting an expensive Hollywood film that can only captivate an audience if all roles are cast fittingly. Arsène Wenger had always had a great knack for good casting. Just how great it was only became clear when important players left the club. The first were Ashley Cole, Sylvain Wiltord, and Edu; followed by Patrick Vieira and Kanu; then Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pirès and Sol Campbell; finally, Alex Hleb and Mathieu Flamini to name only a few.
None of them played as outstandingly at their new clubs as they had at Arsenal – surely, one of the greatest compliments to the boss. Not only did he have a knack for choosing players, but he knew how to read statistics well and recognised in advance when a player had exceeded his zenith and it was time to part with him. At Arsenal, the system made the players successful, not the other way around. Conductor Wenger managed to have everyone in his perfect orchestra stand out through synergy with their colleagues. I asked a few team-mates, and they all said they had not found this kind of interplay at any other club. It was only in my last year that Arsène went a little of the mark once. He appointed me club captain, a sort of elder statesman representing the team outwardly. Besides shaking a few hands in the VIP rooms post-match, this role requires paying attention to one thing: the dressing room. Observe the tone and see that the players show each other enough respect. I had to call the younger players to order a little on occasion, but all together, we harmonised quite well. At times, things were jolly in the dressing room, for instance when my colleague Emmanuel Eboué involuntarily showed of his white long johns, making us laugh like a band of pubescent boys on a class trip.
Legendary, too, is the story of a UEFA Cup match in Bremen before I joined the club that was recounted to me time and again. During the morning walk around Bürger-Park, the players were larking about with a physio called Winky. Ray Parlour gave the latter a push, causing him to collide with a cyclist who happened to be passing by. She fell headlong of her bike onto the pasture, did a roll or two, and finally ended up covered in leaves. Winky ran up to her at once and, in trying to wipe the leaves of her, he touched her breast. ‘Of, of, you bastard,’ screamed the woman, who, luckily, remained unharmed. The whole team was laughing so hard that the pre-match team meeting had to be postponed by fifteen minutes. While the game was still going, Winky was summoned via the loudspeakers and, shortly after, taken away in handcuffs. The cyclist must have reported him to the police. Winky was able to clear the matter swiftly and was let go before the game was out – in which Ray Parlour, of all people, ended up scoring a hat-trick. Later, Arsène Wenger would say, ‘Ray, from now on, I want you to push Winky into a female cyclist before every game.’ Among all this, I myself learned one thing: as representative, one does not always get to play. My club captain colleague, World Cup winner Gilberto Silva, for example, found himself sitting on the bench most of the time.
Jens Lehmann's autobiography, The Madness is on the Pitch, is available from the publisher (deCoubertin) at a special introductory offer.