Sunday 19 August 2018

James Lawton: Replacing Wenger with Rodgers would be unkindest cut of all

Frenchman is clearly out of time but ability to win titles in Scotland is not a credential Arsenal need

Brendan Rodgers has been linked with replacing Arsene Wenger as Arsenal manager. Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images
Brendan Rodgers has been linked with replacing Arsene Wenger as Arsenal manager. Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

No, it is not now a serious argument. Arsene Wenger has stayed on too long and he is paying the heavy price of indignity. His power base at Arsenal is dwindling before our eyes. His face almost by the day becomes more a mirror of anguish and professional despair. But where will it end?

Some are suggesting it might well be in the summer appointment of Brendan Rodgers - and so nonchalantly that you need to stop to remind yourself that in some ways this could be the unkindest cut of all.

If Arsenal owe Wenger anything after years of, let's face it, indulgence which would not have been displayed at any other leading club in Europe, it is surely the care they bring to finding someone worthy of the succession.

Does Rodgers fit that billing? Only if you see his record-breaking feats in Scottish football as anything more than an inflated relic of a national game which once produced club teams capable of competing - and winning - at the highest level of the European game.

Really, over what kind of kingdom does Rodgers rule?

The answer is hard but unavoidable. It is one which shrivels from sight the moment it steps beyond its own borders.

Last week Celtic, the masters of Scotland, were brusquely dismissed from the Europa Cup by Zenit St Petersburg, no-one's idea of a major power as they scuffle in a four-club dogfight for second place, eight points behind Locomotiv Moscow in the Russian league.

In the Champions League the undressing of Celtic has been nothing less than brutal, with Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich barely breaking sweat running up winning aggregates, respectively, of 9-0, 12-1 and 5-1 in the past two seasons.

Rodgers, no doubt, has done all that has been asked of him in maintaining Celtic's domestic power base but are these really the persuasive credentials of a man mooted seriously to succeed a football legend, however diminished his current glory?

Rodgers has been quite coy about the Arsenal speculation and it was interesting that in a recent interview on his coaching techniques, he picked out the four-year-old 5-1 thrashing of Wenger's Arsenal at Anfield as his greatest single achievement.

No doubt it is a memory to cherish. Arsenal came to Liverpool as early Premier League leaders, some thought the Frenchman may just have rediscovered his lost chord, but they were ravaged in the early going.

Rodgers recalls warmly how the Arsenal midfielders - Mikel Arteta (another touted candidate to replace Wenger) and the then brilliantly precocious Jack Wilshere - were pressed into severe cases of battle fatigue.

Rodgers' record as a coach is not, of course, that of a slouch and no doubt the best of his gleanings in years of study and work were brought into execution on that day of destruction. But it probably also needs saying that he also had the services of Luis Suarez, an extremely sharp Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling well on the way to announcing a serious talent and Phillipe Coutinho showing early evidence of the highest class.

Steven Gerrard, who has spoken highly of Rodgers' man-on-man motivational powers, was also working the last of his powers and in the end the title was within Liverpool's touching distance. But then they didn't make it, they imploded, Suarez left, and Rodgers was sacked.

Add on the coach's work in the promotion of Swansea to the Premier League and the two years of plenty in Scotland and you have the case for Rodgers as an authentic claimant to the legacy of Wenger. Does it ring right?

Not if you consider the heights of Wenger's old achievements and the weight of Arsenal's current need for leadership of deeply tested flair and determination and consistency.

Does Rodgers begin to match the different but thoroughly examined qualities of the men he would need to out-think at the top of the Premier League: Guardiola, Mourinho, Klopp, Pochettino and Conte? It is extremely hard to say so.

Certainly, it is easier to accept the theory that pole position in the Arsenal race is occupied by the feisty 43-year-old Portuguese coach of Monaco, Leonardo Jardim.

Last season he stole the Ligue 1 title away from the plutocrats of PSG and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. His reward was to lose the thrilling talent he had released in teenager Kylian Mbappe, on loan to PSG, of all people, with a £180m deal said to be in place at the end of this season.

Strong-minded, he is unlikely to be led by the nose by a new Arsenal football director and his functionaries. It is the confidence of a coach who has had a degree of success wherever he has worked and has never been slow to defend his position.

Having won the Greek title for Olympiacos, his independence led to his departure from that club while leading the league by 10 points. Plainly, he is not a man to sit back on easy victories… or any sense that he is being under-valued.


The word is that both Jardim and former Barcelona coach and Spanish star Luis Enrique both see the Emirates Stadium as an inviting theatre of action, as does the great playing luminary of Wenger's best days, Thierry Henry.

Rodgers' position, perhaps inevitably, is less clear. His choice is between continuing to be the king of Scottish football - a somewhat bogus throne, many would say - and returning to an infinitely more demanding battlefield.

Meanwhile, it seems the agony of Arsene Wenger will stretch out until the summer. It is, who can deny, no-one's fault but his own. He said, with some poignance, this week that he had turned away the world while honouring his Arsenal contracts. But then the world is a fickle place. This, however, is not a charge that can be easily made against the club who have kept faith so long with the great football man who lost his way.

Now they can do him one last service. They can honour his most sublime work - and there was much of that - with the proven quality of the man who takes his place.

Irish Independent

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