France and England have always been synonymous with one another. From the founding Angevin dynasty – who saw France as their primary home – through the Houses of Plantagenet, Lancaster, and York, England was dominated by French influence until about the 14th century, when the aristocracy finally began to use English as the primary language. In short, England owe a great deal of its origins and ascension to global power to France. Arsenal Football Club is no different and can thank their own Gallic son for its current framework.
As the footballing world comes to terms with Arsène Wenger confirming his abdication, tributes continue to pour in from all corners of the community. Be it former player, managerial adversary, or everyday supporter, the profound sense of gratitude and adulation shown is akin to loyal subjects paying their respects to a fallen king.
It is perhaps telling that most of the messages of “Merci Arsène” mention his impact as a role model and father figure rather than a manager. The profound personal impact that the Alsatian headmaster had on the very lives of so many under his charge is, in a word, astounding.
Make no mistake about it though, Wenger changed the very face of English football from a managerial perspective. From dietary restrictions, Wengerball, new methods of training, to the reliance – and dominance – of the then smaller continental markets for talent acquisition, the Premier League would not be the same if not for a man of his deserved reverence.
But for all the messages of praise, adulation, and thanks, there are questions as well as fears. The question is, as Ivan Gazidis put, “How you find a new path forward” rather than trying to replace the irreplaceable. Without question, the task ahead of Arsenal’s chief executive and the board is a daunting one. This is, without question, one of the most important periods in the clubs’ history; certainly, the most important in modern times.
The fear was always that Arsenal would go the way of Manchester United, who struggled mightily in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson stepping down from the global superpower. Frustrating tenures headed by David Moyes and Louis van Gaal would follow in the Scotsman’s wake before potentially finding stability with José Mourinho. It wasn’t always easy for the Portuguese man though, with considerable questions being raised regarding his footballing philosophy not being akin to the United way.
Despite the questions, the former pupil of van Gaal has racked up a 62.61%-win rate. Though he has yet to win the league, his success in the Europa League last season coupled with a highly effective domestic campaign currently – on the back of a system built around defensive solidarity – has United in an upward trajectory once again, even with the change in the on-pitch brand.
Stability can be achieved in the aftermath of such a profound managerial influence, it’s just a matter of when and how.
It has been made clear (in theory) what criteria Arsenal will look to satisfy when the managerial hunt begins in earnest. According to Gazidis the club will consider the following attributes; 1. a progressive manager who presides over exciting football, 2. the integration of young players into the first-team, and 3. a good representative of the club.
By way of club sounding board David Ornstein, Arsenal have quite a shortlist to consider. Big-name managers Max Allegri and Carlo Ancelotti headline said list. Both have an impressive pedigree and can call on ample experience at the highest level in Europe. However the Italian pair would struggle to tick the box of progressiveness and attractive football. The same can be said about their track record with youth integration; both have spotty success in this regard at best. Ancelotti would signal a safer approach in succession, while Allegri – who is said to have admirers at board level – would be a steady hand. Gazidis did say that the club needs to be bold during the selection process, a moniker you would struggle to assign to either option.
Other names mentioned as potential candidates (again via Ornstein) are former players Mikel Arteta, Patrick Vieira, and Thierry Henry, recent Barcelona manager Luis Enrique, Monaco’s Leonardo Jardim, and current Hoffenheim helmsman Julian Nagelsmann. Arteta has zero managerial experience despite being on Pep Guardiola’s staff at Manchester City, and would signal an appointment that is perhaps too bold. The same can be said about Henry, who is learning from a far less capable manager in Roberto Martinez in the Belgian set-up.
Vieira would be the stand-out former player from the bunch, plying his trade in MLS with NYCFC where he has managed big egos in Frank Lampard, David Villa, and Andrea Pirlo during his tenure, while also giving youth a chance in the likes of Jack Harrison, Jonathan Lewis, and James Sands. Arsenal’s former talismanic midfielder would also represent the club in a positive light being a former key figure, though major questions would be asked if he would be up to the task from a tactical and style standpoint.
Luis Enrique brings an impressive CV to the table, boasting two La Liga titles, three Copa del Rey trophies, one Spanish Super Cup, as well as strong European credentials, with a Champions League triumph won in 2015, as part of Barcelona’s treble win that season. He also brings with him a former working relationship with Raúl Sanllehí, which could make player negotiations under the new regime run that much more smoothly. While his time at Barca can be heralded as an overall success, it was his tenure at AS Roma that raises the red flags of inconsistency.
As for Nagelsmann and Jardim, they too are worthy of consideration. Both are strong tacticians, both have made youth progression a hallmark of their overall approach, are modern managers for an ever-changing game seemingly by the year and have gotten the maximum from their players despite being poached routinely by bigger clubs for their star assets.
There are options going forward, which gives hope to the Gunners faithful that all involved in the selection process will urge for the right man to be chosen. But what is noteworthy is the importance of collaboration between those involved in the new back-room set up – who are sure to now wield considerable power at the club – and the new appointee. One of the most damaging circumstances surrounding Wenger’s final years in charge was the rumored divide amongst the hierarchy. In a time where unity has been needed more than ever, it’s paramount that the new manager is onboard with the structure that was clearly put in place with this very event in mind.
Part of the task that has befallen on the club in the post-Wenger era was to go about it’s modernization in the right way. When Sven Mislintat, Raúl Sanllehí, Darren Burgess, and Huss Fahmy were all brought in, it signaled a direction away from a structure (or lack thereof) under Wenger that was far too simplistic and overbearing.
For all the love that will continue to endure when he is spoken of, the Frenchman had taken on far too much of the burden – and the club allowed it. Now, with a chief scout/head of recruitment, a director of football, a head of high performance, and a chief negotiator, Arsenal have now delegated responsibilities to their correct departments. The North London giants now aim to operate as a well-oiled machine, with each department on task in its roles, all while working together with the common aim of propelling the club forward in a constant upward trajectory.
What is important as events move forward is that whomever comes in to fill the managerial void, said man must fall into place in terms of the structure, which could potentially help narrow down the shortlist. A big name such as Ancelotti may resent such a structure, while a very green option the likes of Henry or Arteta could potentially allow the other departments far too much power behind the scenes given their lack of clout. What is needed, like all things in football, is the right balance.
There is no real short-term path to success as we move forward. Despite Wenger’s immediate impact on the club and the country, as English football has evolved, and the Premier League has grown from a two-horse race to arguably a six-horse race at least by current domestic reputation, the odds of Arsenal leapfrogging its rivals to the summit with ease is remote at best. Though Arsène will not be patrolling the touchline at the start of pre-season, his influence remains in terms of almost all the players who are in the frame.
Apart from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (the new backroom staff had a large say in their deals), Wenger had the last word in not only who was brought in, but who was kept and allowed to leave. Whomever is next in the line of succession at Arsenal will have to contend with a midfield that lacks balance, a defensive unit that is dreadfully inconsistent while Laurent Koscielny is in steady decline, questions surrounding the futures of Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, and how to get the best of attacking options that may or may not be able to gel to a higher standard.
It truly is a gargantuan undertaking, one certainly not for the feint of heart, which is why there is apprehension surrounding some of the candidates mentioned; particularly the trio of former players. Beyond questions of how to start to build a squad without influential ties to Wenger, a new tactical schematic must be employed, the youth system needs to be revitalized, and the new manager must endeavor in the task of building his own brand and image rather succumbing to Wenger’s legacy.
In closing, perhaps one more historical parallel…if I may. As England grew in strength, eventually it found its way under the influence of German monarchical houses. Under these blood lines, England became the global juggernaut on which the sun never set. Now too, under a new German influence, perhaps Arsenal will now see its own truly world-wide ascension beyond just financial might.
Down to its foundations and infrastructure the club is a behemoth lying in wait, needing only the right man to awaken it to its full potential. Get it right, and Arsenal can reach the level of United, Barcelona, and Real Madrid. Get it wrong, and the bygone era of Arsène Wenger could be the last happy period for quite some time.
So, to that I say; Adieu Arsène et Merci. I hope we do you proud.