Why there is no perfect formula to the Arsène Wenger saga

Why there is no perfect formula to the Arsène Wenger saga

After 21 years with Arsène Wenger at the helm, as the finish line for the 2016-17 Premier League race for the title comes into sight and the club remains well adrift of the league leaders Chelsea, change might finally be in the air for Arsenal.

Should Wenger and the club decide to finally part ways, the club hierarchy will have a monumental decision to make as to who should replace the most decorated manager in the club’s history. Should they be open to employing a figure with a contrasting vision of the game and simply surrender themselves to follow the new leader? Or are they entitled to demand the appointment of someone who will stay true to the adventurous, at times swashbuckling brand of football which we have come to associate with Arsenal?

In the time since Le Professeur stooped into the Arsenal press room looking every bit the professor he technically was not, Chelsea have made 15 different permanent managerial appointments. Liverpool, a club not exactly known for a sacking culture, have still got through seven. For any Arsenal fans who are lambasting Wenger and yet simultaneously assuming they must bring in a replacement capable of continuing the Arsenal style of football, then they could arguably be accused of having their cake and eating it too.

Because what really is the Arsenal style? The mercurial passages of play often seen by Gunners sides of the last two decades is essentially Arsène Wenger football. On and off the pitch, Wenger’s influence is known by everyone in the game and the Invincibles side which won the 2003-04 league title was the perfect culmination of his methods.

Over the years we, the observers, have become accustomed to marvelling at intricate footwork and fluidity of play that Arsenal players tend to display with a kind of envious respect – even if that respect is then tarnished somewhat by the sniggers that accompany it when the point is again raised that Arsenal have not won the league in 13 years.

We are left to wonder, then, what direction a club as significant as Arsenal should take after being under the same manager for so long. Has Wenger’s philosophy for the game become permanently embedded in the identity of the club or is it reasonable to accept that, if Wenger clears his desk and walks out the front door, all assumptions that Arsenal are essentially an entertaining and attacking football team should follow him on the way out? Because, before Wenger arrived, the Gunners had been known by many as ‘Boring, Boring Arsenal’ – a team that would scrape 1-0 wins and not be concerned with the aesthetics of it all. It’s a routine we would now associate more with a José Mourinho side.

In a time of constant change, where a Premier League management job has never been more precarious, it is exceedingly rare for a club to have to make an appointment to usher in a new era after so much time under the same manager. A decision will inevitably have to be made about how a new era Arsenal should play, whether they should look for someone who will continue to focus on skilful attacking football or if it is more desirable to essentially rip everything up and start again with a whole new direction, putting all their trust in a new face with his own vision for the future of the club. If they look to their league rivals for inspiration, they will quickly be reminded that the transition is rarely straightforward; there is no single method which seems more destined to bring success than another method.

Read  |  Jürgen Klopp and the subtle art of Gesamtkunstwerk

Liverpool, a club that can only envy Arsenal’s three Premier League titles, put their total trust in the methods of a manager with a very impressive record in Germany but with no experience of managing a non-German club. When Jürgen Klopp beamed his way through the doors in October 2015, he brought with him his emotional and, to use his own label, full-throttle brand of Gegenpressing at a time when Liverpool had become stagnant and aimless under outgoing manager Brendan Rodgers. 

There were certainly some reservations from Liverpool fans with overly surrendering their own football ideals to bow down completely to the goofy, endearing German – especially about being associated with heavy metal football, as Klopp’s Dortmund team’s style had been known. This was the city of The Beatles, after all.

However, Klopp sensed this and once he smartly let the notion of heavy metal subtly be rebranded simply as one full of energy and passion, and supporters unanimously agreed that this breathless style was certainly very enjoyable to watch, Klopp’s charisma and passion shone through and Liverpool supporters of more or less all quarters soon bought into his methods.

Naturally, not everything is perfect. Some supporters harbour lingering unease with Klopp’s preference for a plethora of slightly-built, nimble, roaming attacking forwards at the expense of one true centre-forward in the form of Daniel Sturridge or Divock Origi, whilst some question the wisdom of willfully discarding arguably the most adept centre-back the club possessed in Mamadou Sakho when the back line is hardly an iron wall. However, most supporters are very much on board with Klopp and avoid proposing too many detrimental rose-tinted comparisons to previous Liverpool sides of recent years.

Brendan Rodgers had arrived with his own tactical ideals two years earlier and, whilst he had clearly done his homework on the club’s rich past, he quite rightly possessed his own visions as to how his team would set up, even if it differed in some ways from what Anfield was accustomed to. In this way, to an extent Liverpool also showed itself open to following a brand new leader with new methods. After all, everybody at the club had been open to change as an ill-fated stop-gap Kenny Dalglish second reign as manager, which had followed an utterly miserable seven months under Roy Hodgson, had left both supporters and the new Fenway ownership eager to usher in a new era.

However, more often than not, Rodgers tried to stay true to the club’s attacking identity and his methods so nearly brought an end to the club’s long wait for its 19th league championship and its first of the Premier League era – once he had tamed some elements, such as his initial determination to drive home a 4-3-3 system, with which he was well familiar but with which Anfield was not and instead associated much more with arch-rivals Chelsea.

Following the devastation of not winning the league, and the loss of talisman Luis Suárez to Barcelona, Rodgers and his side lost their way and eventually the fear that Rodgers was not going to arrest the slump, coupled with Klopp’s eye-catching success at Borussia Dortmund and his exuberant personality, intrigued both supporters and the board enough to pursue the German-  just when patience with Rodgers’ rather artificial, contrived mannerisms was beginning to wear particularly thin.

Meanwhile, over at Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini had always given off the impression of someone temporarily overseeing the side, winning where possible and avoiding untoward disaster, for as long as it took until Pep Guardiola became available which, essentially, turned out to be exactly what Pellegrini was. Since the arrival of the Middle East riches, there has been little desire for new managers to look to the club’s past – beyond to know that it exists – presumably given the fact that Manchester City’s identity is largely one of suffering little brothers prone to bad luck and pessimism.

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When Guardiola was finally unveiled in summer 2016, he had these words: “To come to the country which created football and believe you have to change something would be a little bit presumptuous. I’m not good enough to change everything. To change the mentality of a club of more than 120 years would be presumptuous.”

Some English football fans do not take too kindly to the notion that Guardiola should ever have the right to dismantle our version of our beautiful game. Of course, Guardiola will believe himself to be good enough to change the mentality of a club of more than 120 years and this is what he has effectively been brought in to do. He has not had to concern himself too much with the club’s history or ponder at length about what exactly is this club’s DNA. Nonetheless, Guardiola is a scholar of the game and will have done his research.

But ultimately there is no expectation or even hope that when arranging his teams Guardiola should look further back to the days of, for example, the late Joe Mercer and John Bond, and even more recent City sides, such as those of Joe Royle and Stuart Pearce, are of equally little relevance. To be consistently at the top of the Premier League and also to bring a first trophy in European competition since 1970 to the blue half of Manchester – ideally the most prestigious of them all, the Champions League – is the task at hand for the Catalan.

Both owners and supporters at City have been more than happy to bow down to Guardiola and let him call the shots. The owners have demonstrated their complete trust in his methods by splashing out the best part of £50 million on a defender who is supposedly good with his feet and yet questionable at defending and £17 million on a goalkeeper who is supposedly good with his feet and yet questionable at goalkeeping.

Throw in £100 million on attacking trio Leroy Sané, Nolito and Gabriel Jesus, along with the £27 million acquisition of midfielder İlkay Gündoğan, and there can be accusations of a lack of support from the board in terms of transfer market dealings.

Supporters for the most part bit their tongues as they watched their beloved Joe Hart ushered out last summer, made to feel like a dinosaur from a bygone age and incapable of playing in the Guardiola way, and were reluctant to question the methods of one of the most influential managers in the history of the game. Naturally, there were fewer reservations about sending out gangly centre-back Eliaquim Mangala, who had cost the club £42 million two years earlier, out on loan to Valencia for the season. Only time will tell if complete trust in Guardiola will pay off.

Although the attacking, at times thrilling football which is associated as a fundamental part of the essence of Manchester United at the so-called Theatre of Dreams has much to do with the Sir Alex Ferguson empire, it is true that long before Ferguson was appointed in 1986 there had been plenty of legends entirely of their own making in Bobby Charlton, George Best, Denis Law and Brian Kidd. Of course, Ferguson was certainly successful in making success become synonymous with Manchester United. Therefore, when he finally retired, the board had a huge decision to make as to who could follow in the Scot’s footsteps.

Read  |  José Mourinho: the early years

In the end, they decided against a top-down revamp and chose another Scot. Whilst never considered a manager who endorses free-flowing football, David Moyes was appointed with the understanding – or at least the hope – that he could provide some sense of continuity of the work Ferguson had done. This, of course, did not happen as Manchester United slumped in the league and their supporters, who had grown used to competing on all fronts, quickly felt short-changed as they saw rival clubs appointing stellar names.

Louis van Gaal was brought in as a wise head with experience of winning things. His age also suggested he was a stop-gap measure and that the owners were not ready for a full-blown revolution just yet. However, it all had the feeling of delaying an inevitable, more drastic change of management. Eventually, presumably fearful that the club had started to look rather at home plodding along in the Europa League, some carefully-considered pragmatism saw Manchester United owners decide in favour of employing arch-enemy and pantomime villain, José Mourinho.

A high level of professionalism has been part of the culture at Manchester United for a long time – not just in terms of playing style on the pitch but also in terms of public relations off it. Custodians of Manchester United have usually held an air of class and dignity, and not the sort to go around poking opponents in the eye or regularly criticising their own players in public.

Certainly not everybody who has United in their blood is on side with Mourinho. To take one of the more striking examples, former United captain Roy Keane has recently claimed to be “sick to death” with the “garbage” that comes out of Mourinho’s mouth, which made the Irishman question if the job is too big for Mourinho. It will be interesting to see how long the provocative Mourinho lasts at Manchester United and, ultimately, if the decision to employ him was a successful one.

Since Roman Abramovich arrived on these shores, Chelsea have been happy to disregard any idealist thoughts about innate club identities and, in constant pursuit of glory and riches, employ whichever manager was considered most likely to bring success at any given time. This mentality, deemed ruthless and cold by football’s large legion of romantics, has more often than not borne fruit for the West Londoners.

Abramovich has typically been happy to put emotion to one side and favour pragmatism, whether it be the appointment of the derided old rival Rafa Benítez, who Chelsea fans continued to remind that they considered him nothing but ‘a fat Spanish waiter’ and who would go on to win the Europa League and restore the club to the Champions League places in the league table in his only season, or the re-appointment of Mourinho in spite of the well-known differences between the Portuguese and the Russian.

Like many other clubs during the last few years, Leicester City have opted for whatever seemed most interesting at the given moment, not losing too much sleep over what legends from bygone ages such as Gordon Banks and Steve Walsh might think. For that reason they went from one experiment, in the form of the volatile hardman Nigel Pearson, straight to the acquisition of someone who arguably represented his polar opposite, the tinkerman and ever-gracious Claudio Ranieri.

Of course, during Leicester’s glorious title-winning campaign Ranieri toned down his fondness for team rotation and played to the strengths of his squad, utilising a consistent and usually deadly 4-4-2 system – something refreshing in a time where 4-4-2 had come to be seen by most of the league as rather outdated and limited.

Read  |  The disputed genius of Arsène Wenger

Arsenal’s fierce rivals Tottenham are reaping the rewards of luring Mauricio Pochettino to White Hart Lane from Southampton and pretty much trusting him to do whatever he wants. For a club who in the previous five seasons had hovered between fourth and sixth in the league, threatening to join the front runners but never quite managing it, their third-place finish last season (which would have surely been second had they not finished the season in such low spirits after conceding the title to Leicester) was a testament to the strong foundations put in place by the Argentine. There will no doubt be some Gunners fans who look enviably across to Pochettino.

If Arsenal were to really stay faithful to the Wenger style minus Wenger himself, then they are not exactly spoilt for choice of clubs to look to for guidance, where the same style is presented as the model time and time again. Barcelona, though, would be an obvious example of a club where an identity, one truly moulded by the late Johan Cruyff, is consistently seen as the blueprint for each new manager to constantly bear in mind. For this, presumably Arsenal would have to be bold and look to players schooled in the Wenger era.

However, the inimitable captain of the Invincibles side, Patrick Vieira, is now part of the City Football Group, working as boss of New York City FC. Various other legends of the successful Wenger teams are yet to dip their toes into management, many instead preferring the relative security and generally enjoyable world of punditry.

In the Premier League, Swansea City’s Huw Jenkins likes to continue a similar footballing philosophy with each new managerial appointment but, whilst Swansea City enjoys relative success for the size of club it is, there is an obvious limit on their feasible level of ambition and so Arsenal supporters would hardly take too kindly to the idea that Swansea are the team they must look to when plotting the trajectory of the next few years.

So where, at the end of all of this, do Arsenal stand? Do they have a right to demand someone who can make the team thrill them in the same way they are accustomed to with Wenger’s on good days? Or have most Arsenal supporters simply grown tired of beautiful football at the expense of silverware and crave major change? And would it perhaps be more beneficial to bring in someone cut from a completely different cloth to Wenger to avoid the pressure of continuing the legacy that afflicted Ferguson’s supposedly safe successor, David Moyes?

Of course, this is football; there is no perfect method. In terms of the players Arsenal possess, a manager who believes in Wenger-style football could be a wise appointment in the short term. However, should this happen, performances actually worsen and the new Arsenal find themselves, say, out of the Champions League places for the first time in some supporters’ lives, the new manager would have a thankless task avoiding comparisons to Wenger’s 21-year reign. 

Having said that, it would be a mouthwatering proposition for any manager, regardless of style, to attempt to usher in a brand new era at a post-Wenger Arsenal 

By Eamonn Foster

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