It’s a routine the boss has followed more than 1,000 times since becoming Arsenal manager in 1996. Matchday is the culmination of a week’s worth of planning and preparation on the training pitches.
It’s the focal point of the week. Everything is planned to the minute, but with enough flexibility built into the schedule to cater for all eventualities and unforeseen changes. So every matchday routine is the same, but also unique, depending on the circumstances.
The boss spoke exclusively to the Arsenal Magazine to reveal how he builds up to a 3pm kick-off at Emirates Stadium, what he does during the game, and how he dissects it all afterwards.
In the first of a two-part article, this month Arsene brings us right up to kick off. Next month he discusses the game itself, what happens post-match and tells us how he unwinds in the evening.
IN THE HOTEL
I would say 98 per cent of the time we spend the night before the game at the team hotel. We meet up at about 8pm, after dinner, and then it’s down to the hotel where the players will have massages, a little snack and then go to bed. The next morning we meet at 10.15am for the team meeting.
That’s the final preparation for the game, and usually that’s where I give the team out. We remind them what we want to do offensively and defensively. There’s usually a short motivational talk at this time too.
I don’t always give the team out at this stage and it’s quite interesting actually because we have European managers’ meetings in Geneva, and I’ve been going there for a long, long time now so I know everybody there. And recently I asked all the managers, I did a survey, I asked them ‘when do you give the team out?’ Ninety-five per cent of the managers told me they give the team out on the day of the game. And those 95 per cent said they give the team out as late as possible.
I’m a bit different. Usually I announce it in the morning, but when I am sure of my team, I announce it to the players the day before the game. Many managers don’t do that nowadays, because they’re scared of the team lineup getting in the media, people telling their agent or friends who then tell the media, or that it comes out via social networks.
So all the managers said to me they have a blackout and don’t name the team early. But for the players that are starting the game, I’ve always thought it’s important for them not to waste energy thinking if they will play or not. I think it’s better if they can just focus on what they have to do. The longer he knows, the better it is.
So if I have decided my team, I mix it up a bit. Sometimes I’ll tell the players on the day of the game, sometimes the night before. Most of the time to be honest, the players know the team during the last training session the day before the game. I always have eight or nine players of my team in my head the day before the game, but there’s always a doubt on one or two.
Recently a fantastic German manager, Udo Lattek, died. He was a very successful manager and he said that sometimes he went into team meetings and didn’t know who to play. So those that looked at him in the meeting he said “OK you will play” and he told those that didn’t look at him that they wouldn’t play!
You try to make it as scientific as much as you can, but it’s intuitive as well because you have to think if the balance of the team is right or if one player was a bit better in the last training session. Has one player got a bit of a cold maybe? When two players are together in your mind, competing for one position, every single detail can go for one of them – experience, confidence under pressure – everything can make a difference.
That’s happened to me when I’ve noticed a player has a little tiredness or tightness in the muscle on the morning of the game so I have a hesitation. I always have a final chat with the medical people to make my mind up and make sure that everybody is alright. I do that on the morning of every game. Then I make my decision.
But if you don’t know what team to pick on Friday night then most of the time you won’t know on Saturday morning either. So I like to decide as early as possible and at least I can then focus on what else is important to compete in the game. When you dwell on it, you can dwell and dwell and not focus on the game.
Anyway, you always have your team in your head, for the whole week. You never go to bed without thinking about what the next lineup will be. You live with that always. That can create uncertainties, because you think about it every day. As I said, if you don’t know on Friday night, you will not know on Saturday morning so you have to decide in your head early, and go for it.
We then have lunch at 11 o’clock – so that’s four hours before kick-off. We have had the team meeting so by now everybody knows what he has to do. Everybody knows whether he is starting the game or not. For some players this can be a difficult time psychologically.
We are split into four tables for lunch. There are three tables with six players on each, then there is one table for the coaching staff – which seems to get bigger every season! Everybody goes back to his room after lunch and we will leave the hotel at 1pm.
AT THE STADIUM
We plan to arrive at Emirates Stadium one hour and 20 minutes before the game. We don’t get a police escort to the stadiums in England, so we don’t always arrive at the same time, but that’s when we aim for.
So we arrive just after 1.30pm and by the time we get there everything is ready because the kitmen have gone to the stadium earlier. They have been told the starting XI so they are able to prepare everything in the dressing room.
When we arrive at the stadium there are two interviews to do for the Premier League. One with a player and one with me, they are a few minutes each and they are straight away as you step off the bus, before you do anything else.
Then we go to the dressing room and everyone takes their usual position next to their shirt. Then the routine for the players begins. The next few minutes are all down to the physios, the fitness coaches and the goalkeeper coach. They are all ready when we arrive in the dressing room and all prepared to go through the players’ routines.
All of the players are very superstitious and they have their own routines. Some like to be strapped up with bandages, some like to be with other players, others prefer to do individual exercises to prepare the body for hard work.
Every player has his own routine which basically gets them in the zone, in the mental zone to be prepared to compete. Everybody has his own particular way to get there. Some smile and laugh before the game, some are very introvert. Others go meticulously through exactly the same movements and gestures before every single game. You have to give them that freedom at this time. Everybody is different and approaches a matchday differently, but for me I always try to be confident. I’m always confident that my team will do well and I want to show that.
But you never know exactly the mental energy that will be in the team during the game, nor the physical energy that will be in everybody that day. Why? Because we are all human beings and don’t wake up every day in exactly the same state. That goes for each of the players as well, so if you multiply that by 18, it shows you the uncertainty that can create.
So I’m confident but also a bit uncertain and curious as to what kind of mental and physical energy will be in the tank for the team. I make sure that everybody around the team fills that tank as much as we can. Of course there is a certainty about the quality of my players but an uncertainty about the energy level that will be available on the day of the game.
Then they go out on to the pitch together for the warm up. We have a stopwatch in the dressing room that everyone can see, counting down how much time is left before we go outside. It counts down so the players are doing their own thing but all the time they can see seven minutes to go, five minutes to go, three minutes to go. When it reaches zero, the music stops, everyone regroups and we all go outside together as a group.
The time then is shared between Shad Forsythe the fitness coach and Steve Bould my assistant. Shad is more focused on the work without the ball and Steve concentrates on preparation for the game with the ball.
After that the players come back inside. The first players start coming in 15 minutes before kick off, the others about ten minutes before kick off.
These last ten minutes before kick off are the final part of the preparation. We get ready for the game. That’s when we come together more as a collective unit. We remind each other “let’s get out there, let’s start strongly!” things like that. The players put their shirts on at this time and motivate each other, regroup and then get ready to go back on the pitch when the bell rings.
Nowadays the bell rings twice. Once to warn you that it will soon be time to go out, then it goes again to tell you it’s really time to go out. Then the linesman comes to check every single player before we head to the pitch.
Then the hearts start to beat a little bit stronger. The staff all regroup around the players to encourage them all, to motivate them, to give them confidence. Then the players walk out of the tunnel. Most of the time Vic Akers, the kitman, and myself are the last two people to walk out and see the rest of them out.
It’s the same routine for every game. I am always looking at the clock on a matchday to make sure we are on schedule at every point. The players know the routine well by now, but I believe that it’s important to have a routine, for the confidence of the group, and that you are very strict on time.
Some players maybe would be more inclined to be a bit laid back and relaxed, but that would disturb some others. So it’s not ideal for everybody to have a strict schedule, but to not disturb anyone, you have to have a very strict routine.
Of course I get nervous before the games because football is not mathematics. In maths every day you know that one plus one is two. In football, one player plus one player doesn’t always add up to two players. Sometimes it’s three, sometimes it’s one-and-a-half, or other times it can be minus one! But that’s also why we love it so much.
I’ve asked people many times why they think that football, that didn’t even exist in 1850, is so popular. I think there are two main reasons. The first one is that it’s completely unpredictable. More so than any other sport. The second reason is that everybody has a chance to play this sport, no matter how small or tall. That’s why football is becoming stronger and bigger all over the world.
It’s so unpredictable that Bradford can go to Chelsea and win, Diego Maradona can be the best player in the world and is very small and Mertesacker can make over 100 caps and is very tall. This uncertainty and this huge potential is in your mind when you’re a manger as well, so of course it makes you nervous, because nobody knows what will happen.
As a manager though it’s important not to show your nerves. I have to keep it in. I’m confident but I’m nervous because I want to win the game. I’ve lost some big games in my life and I know how much it hurts so I don’t want to experience that again.
I have enough experience today to give that calmness out to the players and tell them that if we do certain things correctly, we can win the game. But because it is unpredictable, you have a certain level of nervousness.
Most of the pre-match team talk and preparation is done while we are watching the videos of the opposition rather than just before the game. During the week we prepare our team more on video by watching videos of our opponents and remind the team what we want from them and what the qualities of our opponents are.
Most of the time, my speech is ready. Usually I write some important bullet points down for those meetings, and then I put the game on video and speak to the players then.