Tuesday 21 January 2020

Gunners well armed to replace the irreplaceable

A great manager exits the stage in Arsene Wenger, but the show must go on for Arsenal. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.
A great manager exits the stage in Arsene Wenger, but the show must go on for Arsenal. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

Sam Wallace

Over the years, Ivan Gazidis will have thought many times about how he would announce the departure of Arsene Wenger, that tricky balance between a tribute of unstinting praise and indirectly reassuring all concerned that the club will ultimately be stronger for his departure.

It is, all told, an impossible position, and there were times on Friday evening that the qualities Gazidis identified in the Frenchman were so numerous that you wondered if they should just knock it all on the head and offer the old boy another two-year contract anyway. Gazidis was reading from notes, and who could blame him for wanting to get this right? It felt at times like a father-of-the-bride speech for a beloved daughter who - as the assembled guests well knew - had also caused Mum and Dad a barrel-load of grief over the years.

Gazidis will be well aware that it was the kind of day when the men and women who run football clubs cannot win. They usher out the great figures, as it was with Brian Clough or Bill Shankly, for reasons that are too painful to outline publicly and know that in every documentary ever made on the subject, it will be them cast as the flint-hearted wretches.

Of course, the executive salaries help soften the blow, but the real question is how do you prepare for the departure of a key figure?

As the Alex Ferguson succession at Manchester United has demonstrated, there is no position too strong that it cannot be squandered, and one thing Arsenal will not be losing is the manager-chief executive axis that Old Trafford was deprived of in one single summer. Rather, Wenger's successor is the last piece of change, not the first.

Whether Gazidis's succession planning yields an upturn in Arsenal's performance on the pitch is unknowable, but there is no question that he has grasped that particular nettle. The training ground has been rebuilt, and everything that could sensibly be done to prepare for a smooth transition has been attempted. As Gazidis said, Wenger is irreplaceable in that there will never be another like him, but what is possible is to create the conditions for a different route to success. The question of succeeding Wenger has never been that one framed by those who always cautioned to be careful what you wish for. The question was about creating a club who could accommodate and support good managers to achieve good things. Gazidis said as much on Friday that no future Arsenal manager would have the "breadth and scope" of Wenger's influence. United transitioned from a one-party state into a democracy overnight, but at Arsenal it has been longer in the planning.

Gazidis could do nothing about Wenger's eccentricities, about how he coached the players or picked the team and about those oft-stated criticisms that the staff around the Frenchman did not or could not challenge their manager, but he did build elsewhere, with a major overhaul of the training ground and the club's structure.

His highest-profile appointments, such as head of recruitment Sven Mislintat and head of football relations Raul Sanllehi, a de facto technical director, are well documented, so too Huss Fahmy, contract negotiator, and Darren Burgess, director of high performance. He has tried to change the culture of the club with the help of Trevor Saving, the chief operations officer, and appointments, including David Priestley who has worked on the players' mental preparation. Mislintat has appointed Lee Heron, formerly of Reading, as the academy operations manager and placed great faith in well-regarded scouts Francis Cagigao, for Europe, and Bob Arber, a key figure in Liam Brady's time in charge.

Which is not to say he can guarantee that Arsenal have assembled a team that will restore them to the top of the English game, but in a situation where he could have done nothing for fear of undermining Wenger, he has done something. There is no template for replacing a two-decade reigning giant - although United had a good stab at how not to do it. Equally, there is no sense in doing nothing, and Arsenal have not done nothing.

There is some semblance of continuity, too, with the chance that Steve Bould will be retained to link the last two eras of success at Arsenal to the next, and Per Mertesacker will become the new academy director in the summer. Change is also about who must go, and the Wenger loyalists who have served the club will surely leave with their boss - the goalkeeping coach, Gerry Peyton; coaches Neil Banfield and Boro Primorac; fitness coach Tony Colbert and chief scout Steve Rowley whose departure from a full-time role was formalised months ago.

As for the new manager, it is worth remembering that in January 2017, Stan Kroenke and his son, Josh, broke the mould in appointing Sean McVay at their NFL franchise, the Los Angeles Rams, at 30, the youngest-ever NFL head coach. This January, McVay was named coach of the year after transforming the Rams' offence and taking them to the play-offs for the first time since 2004, so there is precedent for a brave appointment.

There is no question that in the background things have got worse for Arsenal, and that is Gazidis's responsibility as well, with profits down 60 per cent in financial results announced for the six months to the end of November last year. The tumble into the Europa League hit ticket sales, along with commercial and broadcast earnings, and while it might be hard to accept that a manager with such noble ideals should be judged on financial results, that is the world we live in.

Of course, Wenger, with his famous Strasbourg university economics degree and an annual wage of around £8 million, will understand that. A great manager exits stage left, but the show must go on, and while nothing can be guaranteed, at the very least, you must start with a plan.



The Left Wing: The Saracens scandal, Leinster's nightmare draw and Andy Farrell's tough calls

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport