Nigel Winterburn on Arsène Wenger: ‘Footballs? On the first day of pre-season? It was unheard of here’

Arsène Wenger famously revolutionised Arsenal’s training methods when he arrived at Highbury. Nigel Winterburn offers an insider’s account of what worked for him

First impressions

The first time I can remember anything, we had a Uefa Cup game away against Borussia Mönchengladbach in September 1996. Arsène Wenger came to watch the away leg and he came in at half-time and changed the system slightly.

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When David Dein introduced him there were a lot of puzzled faces. Let’s be fair – I don’t think many people in the press had really heard of him either. Then it was a case of seeing where he had come from and listening to what he had to say.

Training

I absolutely loved his training methods, I thought they were fantastic. They were quite intense sessions, everything was on a clock, everything was done for a reason. It was a new start for everybody.

Once we started training, from my point of view, it was quite evident that we had got a manager who was – I couldn’t say “special”, you couldn’t say that yet – but who put on sessions that were there for a reason.

I thoroughly enjoyed them: there was a lot of ball work and a lot of individual technical stuff and small-sided games. It was all about movement and passing and making options for each other, which I really enjoyed.

Wenger did a lot of what I could call “technical work”, between mannequins, where we were working on touch and control. It was high-intensity but was all very short – we would work for 30 or 40 seconds, in groups of three, and then rotate around. Then we would have 15 minutes for a keep-ball session and 15 minutes for a game. It did not matter where we had got to, 15 minutes and the game would be over. We would go and get a drink and then off to the next session.

Nutrition

The training was allied to new dietary requirements, as well as tablets and supplements to take for recovery and to help our performance.

When we finished training Arsène wanted everyone to go upstairs and eat. It was all very, very plain stuff: boiled chicken, fish and pasta, and different desserts. Then there always used to be tablets for recovery, which were new.

After a game he wanted you to reload the body very, very quickly with energy drinks or water. Particularly within the first hour or two, he said there was a real benefit to recovery. So on the coach travelling back he wanted the players to refuel, especially within that first hour.

Pre-season

It was particularly different the following season, in the summer of 1997, when we had the first pre-season under Wenger. It was completely different from anything I experienced in my whole career. It was not about where he took us, it was what he did.

In most places, when you come in for the first few days of pre-season, there is a lot of heavy running work and a lot of double sessions. But I remember coming in for the first day of pre-season in the summer of 1997, and in the morning we did a running session which was just a walk and a jog. It was so easy it was almost embarrassing. We did a couple of those sessions but with no intensity whatsoever – they were just limbering up sessions, preparing ourselves for what was ahead in the coming weeks.

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And then in the afternoon we would come out and there were footballs all over the pitch! “What? Footballs!” It was unheard of, a football session on the first day back of pre-season training. I had never heard of it. That was a completely new phase in pre-season, for me and for a lot of the players.

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