Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is going no time soon, says chief executive Ivan Gazidis
Published 03/06/2016 | 08:30
With the famous five-legged chairman’s chair and the surrounding oak panels that were lovingly transported two streets from the site of the old Highbury Stadium, history seeps from every corner of Arsenal’s boardroom.
Yet when any major judgment is taken inside these four walls, says chief executive Ivan Gazidis, the future will always take priority over the past.
One of the biggest decisions of all now looms and, as our conversation takes its inevitable turn to Arsène Wenger, Gazidis is emphatic about the thought process that will shape every deliberation, not least those of a man who will reach a remarkable 20th anniversary as manager in October.
“There is not nostalgia on either side,” says the 51-year-old Gazidis. “It’s not what motivates us or him. The reason we have Arsène as our manager is because our board believes he can deliver success. The reason that Arsène is here is because he believes that he can deliver success. If either of us didn’t believe that we would not be constrained by nostalgia or longing; we would have to make a change. Arsène would understand and support that. But it’s just not how either side feels. We feel we are on a good path.”
Wenger is now into the final year of his contract and, while he himself has said that he could wait until the end of next season before resolving his future, the club believe that they will know much earlier.
There has been no hint of him winding down.
“He’s in his mid-sixties, it’s natural to think about when his time here might come to an end, but the truth is nobody knows,” adds Gazidis. “He is in fantastic shape. He is deeply engaged and excited. One of the biggest challenges we will face is the transition, whenever it happens, but that is not something we are going to be facing imminently. Obviously, he is going to be managing us next year and we are planning and making many decisions for the long term.
“The reality is we wouldn’t leave things until the last minute. I’m comfortable both that if Arsène is going to extend we will know that and if, whenever that is, he is going to come to an end, that he will give us the time that we need to prepare for that transition. The relationship with Arsène is very deep. It will be done behind closed doors and we will have our transition plans well worked out.
“He has always put the long-term health of the club first. He wants to hand over a football club, whenever that it is, that is in great shape. He views that as a massively important part of his legacy. But we are just not in that mode. I know Arsène wouldn’t stay on if he thought the club wasn’t heading in a good direction and thought he wouldn’t be able to deliver what the fans want.”
The debate about the extent to which Wenger and the club are indeed delivering is, of course, never ending. An attempted ‘Time for Change’ protest in April focused on the 12 years since Arsenal have won the Premier League. The counter argument, of course, is Arsenal’s consistency, the two FA Cup wins since 2014 and consecutive Premier League finishes of fourth, third and second, even if this most recent season was clearly a big missed opportunity.
Gazidis’s answer is that, yes, the past year cannot be looked upon with anything but frustration, but that the broader picture must also remain in focus. “We have to be disappointed, certainly not satisfied, to end up second,” he says. “We wanted more than that and I think that there were chances during the season. We are taking a long, hard, realistic look at why we fell short of our ambitions. You can’t say second place is a disaster, but it’s not what we are about.”
Gazidis believes that one of the lessons throughout football last season was the gains that could be made not in the “messiah complex” of a manager or star player but the structures inside a club. “What is clear is that the big spending was not the solution to all problems,” he says. “It was clever spending and a lot of ‘difference makers’ underneath the surface.” Those ‘difference makers’ include fitness and medical departments, psychology, analytics and youth development.
Although injuries again weakened Arsenal at critical moments, Gazidis says that the soft tissue problems were actually at “historically low levels” and that more freakish impacts were the bigger issue. “But we still have to ask ourselves difficult questions: Did we have the right squad depth for certain difficult functions? We have a good idea of where we feel we fell short and where we feel we did well. Because we have a highly-visible manager who represents so much continuity, there is a misplaced belief that things don’t change. There has been tremendous change within, fully embraced and led by Arsène.”
The wider mood surrounding the club is certainly very changeable. The season, ultimately, did end on a high after pipping Tottenham for second place and an early £30 million deal for midfielder Granit Xhaka will help enthuse restless supporters. Will there be more? A defender and a striker are also sought, while contract negotiations for Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez are ongoing.
Negotiations may well stretch into the start of next season but there is little prospect of either moving this summer. “We are in a position that we were not in four or five years ago where we don’t have to sell our best players,” says Gazidis. “We can go and sign world-class players if and when the manager identifies them.”
Squad investment, he says, has never been restricted and is strongly encouraged by the majority owner, Stan Kroenke. He points out the arrivals of Özil, Sánchez, Petr Cech and now Xhaka in successive summers. “We have very high aspirations and care deeply,” he says. “But we don’t have an owner who storms the corridors on a Monday, who calls the manager and says, ‘Why aren’t you starting this player?’ and enjoys high-fiving 26-year-old athletes. To me, that’s good.”
Gazidis knows that the domestic challenge will only intensify next season and, as well as noting the arrival of two managerial heavyweights in Manchester, expects further surprises.
“Leicester’s achievement is incredible but it may not look so exceptional when we look back in four or five years,” says Gazidis. “We are very driven to take a further step and deliver trophies domestically but, ultimately, in Europe.”
He knows that there will be some scepticism at such confidence but, equally, is certain that some of the anger that is now so visible on social media is not actually the considered barometer for supporter mood.
“I know there are tensions but you have never seen the unity of this club break,” he says. “Our renewal rate on season tickets is higher historically this year than ever. I don’t use that to say all fans are happy, but most people are not engaging daily on social media and their opinions are much more nuanced than it might seem.
“What’s quite difficult is that once people have created a story in their own mind, their own confirmation biases will kick in. It’s true of all of us. My confirmation bias is we are a club making progress. Our ambition is to win the Premier League but we have had our best finish in years and two FA Cups in three seasons.”