How much time does a good manager need to rebuild a squad?
This is a key question that must be taken into account when assessing Wenger’s performance at Arsenal. Two to three years would seem a fair answer. Spurs were a team in sixth place when Pochettino took over in the summer of 2014. Within two seasons, Pochettino turned Tottenham into a title contender. By contrast, two years were not enough for Van Gaal to restore the Red Devils to their former glory. The Dutch manager was sacked and replaced by Mourinho last summer. Maybe Van Gaal would have found the right recipe in his third season at Manchester United but the board lost patience after the club missed out on a Champions League spot.
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That kind of task can prove difficult in one of the most competitive leagues in the world. Klopp has almost turned Liverpool into a contender within a year and half. The German manager will still need at least one more season before the Reds become a genuine threat for the Premier League title because their defense is still too porous. In his first season at Manchester City, Guardiola is facing similar problems. The Citizens have lost too much ground in the title race because they have leaked too many goals. You can expect a spending spree from City on defenders this summer.
Wenger is also rebuilding his squad. Obviously, the big difference is that Wenger has been the Arsenal manager for 20 years. The Frenchman has been heavily criticized by the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade for not winning the league since 2004. I think that time frame is unfair for the simple reason that the club was losing its best players from 2006 to 2012 besides reimbursing the cost of the Emirates stadium. In fact, the club is not done yet with the payments for the new stadium. The Gunners have a net debt of 101 million pounds, according to the latest financial results released a few days ago.
Losing the golden touch
If Wenger deserves some criticism, that can only be for the last four years when the club finally had some money to spend in the transfer market. Signing Ozil in the summer of 2013 was the signal that Arsenal could afford to be ambitious again. The Gunners added Sanchez, Welbeck, Chambers, Debuchy and Ospina in 2014, then Paulista and Cech in 2015 and Elneny, Xhaka, Mustafi, Perez and Holding last year.
Should the board not renew Wenger’s contract because many of those recruits have disappointed? You could argue that Wenger has lost his golden touch in the transfer market and is therefore unlikely to improve the squad this summer. For years, the Gunners have been accused of lacking character, leadership and physicality. Despite some significant spending since 2013, Wenger still hasn’t fixed those flaws as the losses at Chelsea and Bayern Munich showed.
Those who read my blog know that I am not part of the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade. In previous posts like ‘What went wrong for Arsenal this season’ (25 March 2016), ‘How complacency is crippling the club’ (21 May 2016), and ‘Reflecting on Wenger’s 20 years at Arsenal’ (12 October 2016), I have acknowledged the manager’s historic contribution to the club but also pointed out his limitations in taking Arsenal to the next level, i.e., becoming a genuine contender again.
Clearing the dead wood
In my assessment of Wenger’s contract situation, what has really tipped the scales is the massive overhaul needed this summer. There’s a lot of dead wood to clear and I just don’t think that Wenger is ruthless enough to do it. The manager was too sentimental in 2015 with Arteta and Rosicky, whose contracts were extended although they were past their prime and had fitness issues. Rosicky only played one game last season while Arteta was involved in 15 games but for a total of just 416 minutes.
The club has pretty much become a retirement home by also extending the contracts of Mertesacker and Cazorla. Mertesacker hasn’t played this season because of a knee injury while Cazorla is set to miss the rest of this campaign because of an ankle injury. Wenger values their experience and the advice they can provide to the youngsters. But if you look at next season, it’s two spots lost in the squad.
To me, it’s clear that the manager has mellowed in his old age. When Arsenal won the Premier League in 1998, 2002 and 2004, each of those titles was preceded by a relentless activity in the transfer market. I believe a younger Wenger would have released Arteta and Rosicky in 2015 and Mertesacker and Cazorla this summer.
Issues at the back
If we have a look at what the squad needs, then it becomes obvious that such a massive task is not tailored for Wenger. In goal, we have three flawed players: Cech is past his prime and his slow legs have cost Arsenal two penalties this season; Ospina can’t command his own area; and Szczesny, on loan at Roma, is error-prone and has attitude issues on and off the pitch. At rightback, Debuchy and Jenkinson are not good enough, even as back-up players, and should be shipped out. It’s quite telling that Paulista is the manager’s second choice in that position behind Bellerin.
At centerback, we have six defenders: Koscielny, Mustafi, Paulista, Holding, Mertesacker and Chambers, on loan at Middlesbrough. That’s simply too many players for two starting spots. Chambers is not good enough and must be sold; Holding needs a loan to speed up his development; and Mertesacker will probably act as an informal assistant coach since his lack of pace is a liability when the team plays a high defensive line. If the club had not extended Mertesacker’s contract, there would have been a spot available for Koscielny’s potential successor. Let’s not forget that Koscielny will turn 32 this year and might decline like Vidic did at the same age.
At leftback, Monreal and Gibbs have struggled this season to stop dangerous crosses. Monreal is performing a notch below the level of his 2014-15 season while Gibbs is a decent back-up option but not a starter. I doubt Bramall could be the answer at leftback next season. As you can see, there are plenty of moves required just to improve our defense. It gets even more shambolic when we analyze the midfield and the offense.
Letting Ozil go?
I divide the midfield into three categories: defensive midfielders, attacking midfielders, and all-around midfielders who can both defend and attack. Elneny, Coquelin, Xhaka and Maitland-Niles are mostly defensive midfielders. Xhaka can be an attacking threat with his long-range strikes and balls over the top, but his limited dribbling and running skills force him to be a deep-lying playmaker. Elneny and Coquelin are utility midfielders not good enough to start for a contending team. They are basically cheap versions of PSG workhorse Matuidi. Coquelin has better tackling skills than Elneny but his end product and positional play can be questionable. I have high hopes for Maitland-Niles but he’s only 19. The English teenager can win tackles and has more tactical discipline than Coquelin. He could do for Arsenal what Kante is doing for Chelsea.
All-around midfielders play an important role nowadays because of the emphasis put on the transition game, whether it’s capitalizing on turnovers or stopping counterattacks. On paper, we have four all-around midfielders with Cazorla, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere, on loan at Bournemouth. The trouble is that Cazorla, Ramsey and Wilshere are injury-prone players. Wilshere is having an injury-free season with Bournemouth, but he’s not playing any European game, which makes a huge difference in terms of physical recovery. And the Ox lacks experience in midfield as he has mostly played on the wings under Wenger.
The difference between an all-around midfielder and an attacking midfielder is the capacity to contribute defensively. Ozil, Iwobi and Reine-Adelaide can’t properly defend and fall therefore in the latter category. I wouldn’t mind letting Ozil go this summer, especially if he wants to earn more than 200,000 pounds a week. The cash from his transfer would help Arsenal sign a player with a stronger work ethic and whose game is better tailored for a high press. At 19, Reine-Adelaide is too soft for the Premier League and would need a loan to toughen up. Iwobi has great potential but you can’t expect much consistency from a 20-year-old kid.
More than 10 moves needed
The forward positions are quite a mess. Sanogo and Campbell, on loan at Sporting Lisbon, should be shipped out. The manager has built the attack around Sanchez this season but the Chile international is not the complete centerforward. Sanchez can’t win aerial duels and his hold-up play is poor. If the club can’t convince Sanchez to stay, then Arsenal should cash in this summer and play differently with Giroud, Welbeck or Perez up front. Walcott has decent stats this season but his poor work-rate doesn’t justify a starting spot. And does Akpom, on loan at Brighton, still have a future as a Gunner?
Basically, more than 10 moves would be required this summer to improve the squad and the chemistry in the dressing room. If the board and the management balk, the Arsenal team will be one or two years late in its development because you can be sure that the managers at Liverpool, Manchester United and City will be ruthless in the transfer market.
If the board is serious about finding Wenger’s successor, they must have a shortlist by now. The timing can be delicate for a changing of the guard. No Arsenal fan wants to see Wenger sacked in the middle of the season like Ranieri. By contrast, Ferguson had the perfect send-off but the Manchester United board mismanaged his succession.
If the Arsenal board can’t sign a top manager this summer, then extending Wenger’s contract by a year could be a wise move to buy a bit of time, assuming the Gunners finish in the Top 4. On the other hand, letting Wenger at the helm of the club would be a risky choice if they finish outside the Top 4. The atmosphere could become toxic next season, especially with a polarised fan base.
What the next Arsenal manager must have
There should be at least three requirements met by the next Arsenal manager: he must be good at developing youngsters otherwise academy players like Bellerin and Iwobi wouldn’t have joined the first team; he must have a shrewd transfer policy because Arsenal can’t compete financially with Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs; and he must have a good knowledge of European football to help the club go further in the Champions League.
Let’s have a look at some of the names tossed around: Howe, Simeone, Tuchel, Allegri, Jardim, Henry, Blanc, Koeman and Puel. For a club like Arsenal, Howe is simply not good enough. Some pundits have claimed that Wenger was a relatively unknown manager when Arsenal hired him, but there’s a massive difference between Howe and Wenger’s situation in 1996. Wenger won the French league with Monaco in 1988 and led the French club to the semifinals of the 1994 Champions League. Howe has done a good job at Bournemouth but has no experience of European football and has never managed a big club.
Simeone is a popular name although his team plays more defensive football than Arsenal. He won the Spanish league and the Europa League with Atletico Madrid and led the Spanish club to two runner-up finishes in the Champions League. The Argentine manager also showed some flair in the transfer market by signing Griezmann and Oblak and he helped youngsters like Koke and Saul Niguez blossom at the top level. The only question mark is whether Simeone would contemplate a move to the Premier League.
Tuchel is an intriguing name. He has 7 seasons under his belt as a manager in the Bundesliga but no experience outside Germany as a player or manager. Would he be good enough for a club like Arsenal? Borussia Dortmund finished second in the German league last year but has quickly dropped out of the title race this term.
The Monaco connection
Allegri is the bookmakers’ favorite. The Italian manager won Serie A with AC Milan and Juventus and reached the Champions League final with the Bianconeri two years ago. Known as a tactical expert, Allegri shouldn’t struggle to adjust to the Premier League. The only question mark is about his ability to develop youngsters. There are mostly seasoned players in the Juventus squad and the few youngsters learned their trade at smaller clubs.
Jardim has at least one thing in common with Wenger: the Monaco connection. The Portuguese manager is known for his shrewd transfer policy and his capacity to trust youngsters. He built the tightest defense in the French league to lead Monaco to a third-place finish in 2015. Although PSG keeps spending more money than Monaco, Jardim has tweaked his tactics to lead the French league this season. With 2.89 league goals per game, Monaco has the most prolific attack among the top European clubs.
Arsenal fans have fond memories of Henry, but I don’t think he’s ready yet to become a manager at this club. Some pundits might mention Guardiola and Zidane as successful examples of players who quickly moved into high-profile managerial roles, but the circumstances are really different. Guardiola and Zidane had very little rebuilding to do at Barcelona and Madrid, and they also had leaders in their respective squads.
Blanc is available after PSG sacked him last summer. He won the French league with Bordeaux and then PSG, but the comparison with his successor, Emery, doesn’t look good. Emery has trusted youngsters like Kimpembe and Nkunku while Blanc was reluctant to use Coman, who finally joined Juventus in 2014. PSG under Blanc struggled against the top teams in the Champions League, losing to Barcelona and Manchester City in the 2015 and 2016 quarterfinals. The French club adopted a more aggressive approach under Emery and managed to thrash Barcelona 4-0 in the first leg of their last-16 encounter this month.
Becoming a sporting director?
Koeman and Puel have plenty of experience but are outsiders compared to Simeone, Allegri and Jardim. Koeman has a great knowledge of European football but hasn’t managed a big club since a poor spell at Valencia. Puel has probably won more admirers after Southampton’s good performance in the League Cup final but the lack of silverware on his resume, with just the French league title in 2000, could deter the Arsenal board.
What worries me is that there is no football expert on the Arsenal board. That will make the transition even more difficult. Remember, Arsenal hired Wenger in 1996 because Dein, then a vice-chairman at the club, recommended him. The board might be tempted by a clean break, but it was clearly a mistake in Manchester United’s case. The Red Devils felt that Ferguson’s presence would be an additional weight on Moyes’ shoulders. In the end, Moyes got plenty of freedom but the transition was a mess. I hope the Arsenal board can convince Wenger to become a sporting director although the Frenchman believes he still has a couple of years left in him as a manager. Big clubs like Bayern Munich and Barcelona have sporting directors on their staff.