Arsenal turning the page on Wenger era

Gazidis was ridiculed by Arsenal fans for saying last season that the club’s poor run of form would be a “catalyst for change”. A year later, that change has finally come. I think Wenger made the right decision by announcing on Friday that he would step down at the end of the season. Wenger showed respect to the club by realizing that he couldn’t take the club further. And the board showed respect to Arsenal’s most successful manager by letting him go on his own terms instead of sacking him.

Wenger's departure

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger and the board didn’t really have the choice. First, the Gunners will miss out on a Top 4 finish for the second year in a row. There was some suggestion that last season was just a blip because Arsenal finished only 1 point behind Liverpool in the Premier League. But poor performances this season have confirmed the club’s decline. The Gunners trail fourth-place Tottenham by 14 points and are on course to finish the season with their lowest tally in the Wenger era. The board would have taken the risk of a third straight year outside the Top 4 by letting Wenger see out his contract.

Second, Kroenke treats Arsenal like a business. The club really looked bad this year when a lot of fans decided to protest with their wallets by not attending home games. Sponsors can’t be happy when they see so many empty seats at the Emirates stadium. And when you add the number of memberships that haven’t been renewed for next season, the business outlook is definitely not good.

And third, the board had to stop the rot on and off the pitch. The Gunners used to be known for their spectacular style of football under Wenger. Unfortunately, their brand of football has become boring this season as if they had lost their identity. Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham are more entertaining teams than Arsenal. If you are a TV network and have the choice between a Liverpool game and an Arsenal game, you can bet your viewers will prefer to watch the Liverpool game. Off the pitch, the club has signed a lot of average players in the past few years. Therefore it didn’t make sense to let Wenger spend a fortune in the transfer market for another mediocre season.

3 key criteria for a successor

In the end, Wenger’s departure is the logical outcome of the moves made by Gazidis last year: the Arsenal chief executive appointed Fahmy as contract negotiator last summer before hiring Mislintat as head of recruitment and Sanllehi as head of football relations in November. The club used to let Wenger supervise the squad, the youth teams, the recruitment and the scouting. That’s a lot of work and power for one person. Now the structure of the Arsenal staff is more horizontal and to a certain extent similar to clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, PSG and Manchester City where a sporting director helps the manager.

The timing of Wenger’s departure is questionable. I believe Wenger should have already stepped down last year when he missed out on a Top 4 finish. In my eyes, that was the sign that his powers were waning. Of course, the board also had its share of responsibility. Kroenke, Gazidis and Co. gave Wenger a two-year extension because they were not prepared for life without the French manager and therefore had no shortlist of successors.

The timing of Wenger’s announcement is also questionable. It could have been done in March when the Gunners were falling out of the Top 4 race. In 2016, Manchester City announced Pellegrini’s departure in February. That did not prevent the Citizens from finishing 4th and hiring Guardiola in the summer. Why am I saying that Wenger’s announcement came a bit late? Because it will take 1 to 2 months to have applications, to interview candidates, to probably reshuffle the staff, and to coordinate strategies with Mislintat and Sanllehi. That’s bad news when you know that some signings are negotiated by May. And the shorter transfer window this summer leaves no room for error. Arsenal can’t afford to mess up like Manchester United did in 2013 when Moyes only got Fellaini.

The key criteria for appointing the next Arsenal manager are pretty simple: 1. He should be able to develop youngsters. There are some top prospects in the academy (Nelson, Nketiah, Maitland-Niles) and you don’t want to lose them to rival teams. Klopp and Pochettino have done a great job with Gomez, Alexander-Arnold, Kane, Alli and Winks. By contrast, Mourinho lacked patience and flair with De Bruyne, Salah and Lukaku; 2. He should have a shrewd transfer policy because Arsenal can’t compete financially with Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs. That means signing underrated players; 3. He should have a good knowledge of European football to help the club go further in the Champions League.

Simeone’s brand of football

Let’s have a look at some of the names tossed around: Ancelotti, Rodgers, Howe, Dyche, Low, Tuchel, Conte, Allegri, Enrique, Simeone, Jardim, Vieira, Henry, Arteta. Ancelotti has a fantastic resume and is more astute tactically than Wenger but he’s not a squad builder and doesn’t develop youngsters. The Italian manager mostly worked with seasoned players at AC Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

Rodgers, Howe and Dyche are British managers who aren’t good enough tactically to cope with European football. Howe and Dyche have done a good job at Bournemouth and Burnley but Arsenal is a too big club for them and they would likely suffer the same fate as Moyes at Manchester United. Rodgers has more experience at the top level than Howe and Dyche. He led Liverpool to a runner-up finish in 2014 but he was also responsible for their mediocre start to the 2015-16 season and made a costly mistake by signing Benteke.

Low won the World Cup with Germany in 2014 but he hasn’t managed a club since 2004. So there are big question marks about his capacity to adjust again to a club’s workload. Tuchel would be a weird appointment because of his rift with Mislintat at Borussia Dortmund. And he has never enjoyed the same level of success at Dortmund as Klopp.

Conte and Allegri would definitely improve the Arsenal defense. Is Conte still feeling homesick or is he willing to stay a few more years in England? Conte would be a better choice than Allegri, who hasn’t developed youngsters at Juventus. In fact, Allegri has mostly signed seasoned players in the past few years (Matuidi, Benatia, Costa, Higuain, Pjanic, Alves, Dybala, Mandzukic, Khedira).

Simeone and Enrique are intriguing names. Enrique won the Spanish Liga and the Champions League with Barcelona but he also did a poor job at AS Roma, which couldn’t qualify for any European competition in 2012. I wasn’t much impressed when Enrique was the Barcelona manager. He mostly played counterattacking football, relying on the finishing of Messi, Suarez and Neymar. Simeone would be a more solid choice than Enrique. The Argentine manager won the Liga and led Atletico Madrid to two runner-up finishes in the Champions League. Simeone 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. However, his brand of football requires a lot of intensity and I’m not sure Arsenal could last the distance.

Patience needed for next season

Jardim would be a great choice but the Portuguese manager is a non-starter because he has recently extended his contract with Monaco. So we have some former Gunners left as potential candidates: Henry, Vieira and Arteta. 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.

Vieira and Arteta would be more decent options than Henry. Arteta has learned a lot under Guardiola and he always looked like a manager in the making while playing at Arsenal. Vieira doesn’t look like a short-term solution. The Frenchman is tied to Manchester City and said today that he’s “happy” at New York City.

Fans will have to be patient next season because whoever takes over will face a massive rebuilding job. The Gunners will need to sign a goalkeeper (because Cech has become error-prone while Ospina can’t command the area), two centerbacks (because Koscielny is past his prime, Mustafi is shaky and Holding and Chambers aren’t good enough), a leftback (Monreal is past his prime and Kolasinac is a poor defender), a holding midfielder (because Xhaka lacks defensive awareness and Elneny doesn’t win duels), and a deep-lying playmaker (because Cazorla is injured and Wilshere is not good enough).

Thank you for the memories Arsene. Hopefully, the fans will give you a glorious send-off for those 22 years at the helm of the club.

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