21 April 2018 marked the end of an era in Arsenal Football Club, when a man who had introduced me to football and Arsenal in particular 15 years ago made an unlikely decision to step down as the Arsenal manager after 22 years being in charge. It is such a huge moment to me, not only as an Arsenal fan but also as someone who did not skip a single pre and post-match interview of Arsene, that I finally decided to blog this.
Why it is historically important for Arsenal
David Dean who served as the Vice Chairman of Arsenal Football Club in the late 90’s was in search of a new manager with a fresh look at the Premier League when his wife told him that the manager of AS Monaco was in Highbury watching the match. Dean, who has long admired Arsene for his knowledge of the game and breakthrough view on football, did not take it long to invite him for a dinner after the match not actually to talk about coming to Arsenal in the first place. But the first impression with Wenger as an intelegent human being led Dean to an idea which later is proven as a game-changing decision: Arsene-Arsenal. The rest was history.
Arsene, who came to the Premier League as the first non-British manager, brought in the attractive football with possession from his French-German heritage joint with a holistic view on sport of Japan. Trainings, dietary and football style have never been the same anymore in Arsenal and English football after his arrival. Arsene was also recognised as a strong believer of the youth development, arguably the strongest ever in England with his bold decision to hand the likes of Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere the chance to play in the first team. It was a decision that in turn proved a great contribution to the England National Team and English football in general.
During his 22-year tenure, Arsene has made Arsenal synonymous with possession-with-progression style of football, the belief in youth and economic efficience footballing business. Many would argue that his idealistic and stubborn view on how the game should be played and the industry should be regulated were the reasons to blame for the club’s last 10-year downturn after The Invincibles. Arsene himself was always on the side of the financial fairplay and was very tight on transfer budget, particularly after the completion of the move to The Emirates Stadium, Arsenal’s new home.
Arsene, however, has changed over the years. Having been spending resricted budget in transfer windows for almost 5 years after the move to The Emirates, Arsene could not resist the temptation to splash big money on the likes of Mesut Özil, Alexandre Lacazette and his last signing, Aubameyang who each had broken the club’s transfer record. When the other big clubs in England have spent big during Arsene’s second ten-year period, Arsenal were the only club in the top 5 who actually gain profit from transfer windows. Only in the last 7 seasons has Arsene started to source big talents from big clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Lyon. Nevertheless, he still has the courage to have his heart on the young lads like Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi to shine among the multimillion-pound stars. His values were the only things he requested the club and fans to take forward. It has now become an impossible job for the Arsenal Board to find a figure who lives Arsene and Arsenal’s values in his blood yet is strong enough to challenge for titles, something that Arsenal fans have been longing for.
Arsenal without Arsene: The Aftermath
On the players front, an unavoidable exodus is the last thing the Arsenal fans would think about, yet they have all the reasons in the world to fear about. Özil and Wilshere are among the many players who came to Arsenal because of Arsene. Losing Özil would be unthinkable for the fans, especially after the departure of Alexis in the winter. The other difficult job for The Board is to keep the most important officials who Wenger hired, on board. Scouts,physios and coaches who have been loyal to The Professor for his entire career at Arsenal are put into the test when it comes to a staying decision. It would not be an easy task for the new manager to instill his original values of football and managing style to these experienced members like Steve Bould and Boro Primorac who have been working hand-in-hand with Arsene to nurture raw talents to be worldclass players. We have learnt the case of Alex Ferguson who retired and followed by exodus of his staffs who did not feel it anymore with the new manager after years of working under the same man.
The job has only become harder as Wenger has hinted not to take another role in the Arsenal management, unlike his predecessor, Ferguson, who later became United’s Director. The situation is getting more complicated since there are speculations that Arsene was forced to step down by The Board, a rumor that Arsenal legend, Ian Wright has raised a couple of days ago. This is making some sense since we all have known Arsene as someone who always refuses to give up his idealism. He would have rather been sacked than stepping down as the manager of the club he has lived the best moments of his life with. Alluring him to stay at the club as Arsenal’s ambassador is not even easy. Ivan Gazidis is presumably the last member of the Board who still has the huge respect for the man until the day he announced Arsene’s departure, despite the club’s constant downfall in the table for having the chance to finish sixth this seasom, the lowest in more than two decades.
I personally do not see this as a complete overhaul to the coaching staffs, from the first team down to the youth team coaches. The new manager would have to work on Arsene’s platform, including the staffs he had hired, although reshuffles would certainly take place. The critical decision to be made is now becoming to find the right manager who has a leader charisma, equipped with tons of experience in managing huge club, in hunger of titles but at the same time is keen to continue Arsene’s platform on youth development which has been Arsenal’s key selling point. Who? The time would answer.
Then who and what’s next?
What’s next? Ivan Gazidis had not closed the possibility to appoint ‘another Wenger’ this time, suggesting that The Board has already started the search since the day Ivan announced Arsene’s departure. During this searching period, The Board also has to do whatever it takes to secure the service of current senior members of the squad who has not extended their contracts such as Jack Wilshere who has a commanding influence to the younger squad members. As with those who still has years in their contracts, it is not any easier task when it comes to avoid players being unsettled after management changes. We have seen how David Moyes and Louis van Gaal struggled to keep the performance of Wayne Rooney or Chris Smalling at the level when they were playing under Sir Alex.
When Arsene was appointed back in 1996, English football had no clue of who this man was. Arsenal was in gamble but at the same time hoping for a high return knowing his knowledge of the sport. Today, major clubs in Europe are under a constant pressure from the shareholders which would question every decision they make on manager appointment. Arsenal would less likely be repeating their rather speculative appointment this time, since the fans are already urging The Board to bring about change and challenge for the title not only in England but also in Europe.
This situation, I reckon, would eliminate the possibility of young managers like Henry, Vieira, Arteta or even the noticable Eddie Howe to be appointed. Given the huge challenge that would come to keep the ship sailing, a more experienced figure like Ancelotti who has been familiar with English football would be far more favoured. However, these experienced managers might not suit Arsenal’s long term project to be one of Europe’s giants while keeping the faith in young players and sustaining a healthy financial state of the club. This could also mean that Arsene’s direct replacement might work more as a caretaker than a long-term replacement. Only The Board knows.
Whichever alternative that The Board would pick, Arsenal are in a much stronger position today than 22 years ago when Arsene was appointed. The fans are very much behind the team to fully support the new manager when he is appointed. No more Wenger-in or Wenger-out. What remains is the optimism to a promising new era after the long-serving living-legend manager.