This Wednesday Arsenal season-ticket holders will head to their home ground to watch their team take on a Manchester United side that, for the first time in nearly 28 years, is no longer under the guidance Sir Alex Ferguson.
Not since Ron Atkinson took the Red Devils to Highbury on the opening day of the season in August 1986 and returned with the famous chant of “1-0, to the Arsenal!” ringing in his ears (thanks to a goal from Charlie Nicholas) have the Gunners faithful observed a man other than Fergie manage one of their fiercest rivals from the opposition dugout.
On Wednesday, David Moyes will change all that. The former Everton manager’s start to life as United boss as been as troubled as it has been extensively scrutinised, with Sunday’s scarcely believable 2-2 draw with the Premier League’s bottom side, Fulham, making the club’s pursuit of fourth place (a mere fourth!) in the league look more difficult than ever.
Arsenal, who remain in the title race despite Saturday’s surprising 5-1 defeat to Liverpool, have been able to enjoy United’s demise, yet seeing it up close at the Emirates may suddenly engender a certain amount of apprehension and concern among fans.
Watching Moyes in one dugout and seeing how the presence of another Scot has failed to prevent United losing some of their lustre and sense of identity (however temporarily) may lead some fans to let their eyes wander across to their own manager, Arsene Wenger, and fear the effect his eventual departure might have on their beloved club.
Nearly 18 years into his tenure, Ferguson’s retirement has made the Frenchman far and aware the longest-serving manager in the English top flight. Stability breeds success, as the received footballing wisdom goes, even if (in recent years at least) the most success Arsenal have seen is 16 successive years of Champions League football.
Nevertheless, Arsenal fans might get to wondering: How will they replace Wenger when the time finally comes?
No need to panic
First things first: It does not seem that Wenger’s departure from north London is in any way imminent. The 64-year-old’s current contract expires in the summer, but a new three-year deal is believed to be close to being finalised.
It is never been either the club or the manager’s style to publicise every twist of ongoing contract negotiations, but it is widely expected that an announcement will come shortly. Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis told reporters two weeks ago:
Arsene will be extending with us and, at the right time, we will make that announcement. We have always supported Arsene, the board and [owner] Stan Kroenke have always been completely behind him. Arsene has always been committed to the club. He’s the right person to see us forward.
Assuming Wenger does sign on for another three years (the period cited in almost all newspaper reports about the subject), he will be 67 at the end of that deal—four years younger than Ferguson was when he made the abrupt decision to retire at the end of the 2012-13 season.
After 21 years in charge at Arsenal, Wenger may decide to continue for a few more—or he may indeed decide that the time has come to walk away from the game and spend retirement enjoying other pursuits.
He may even decide that he wants to try his hand at managing another club—Real Madrid and, more recently, Paris Saint-Germain, have made little secret of their admiration—although this would be something of a departure for a man who has shown almost unwavering loyalty to Arsenal since his arrival in 1996.
Even those possibilities are over three years away, though.
The underlying point then is that replacing Wenger is not likely to be an imminent concern. But, as United’s growing pains (if we are to be charitable about it) under Moyes ably demonstrate, it is never too soon to start some deliberations.
Time is on their side
When it came to replacing Ferguson, United did not exactly have long to plot their next move. While the Scot only dropped the news on the wider world mere weeks before his final game, he scarcely gave his superiors much more warning—hinting at his decision to the board and a close circle of friends in the December 2012.
One of those who apparently knew? Jose Mourinho, who told reporters in June:
I knew that Ferguson was retiring many months ago and I was so happy to have his trust. It was big news for the world. I can imagine that just a very close circle around him knew that and it was a big responsibility for me to know that.
Having made the decision, Ferguson was then made a key part of the selection process for his successor—pinpointing David Moyes after input was taken from then-chief executive David Gill and board members who included Sir Bobby Charlton. Sir Alex told reporters:
When we discussed the candidates that we felt had the right attributes we unanimously agreed on David Moyes. David is a man of great integrity with a strong work ethic. I've admired his work for a long time and approached him as far back as 1998 to discuss the position of assistant manager here.
He was a young man then at the start of his career and has since gone on to do a magnificent job at Everton. There is no question he has all the qualities we expect of a manager at this club.
While it would be ridiculous to write off Moyes’ tenure on the basis of seven poor months, when results have been affected by growing pains surrounding the tactical and cultural transition and further hampered by some unusually bad luck, it is not unfair to venture that the decision has not been the immediate and obvious success some might have hoped.
That might lead Arsenal to wonder whether involving Wenger in the process of choosing his successor is the best move or whether they should simply take his input on board but complete the majority of the process themselves.
That process is likely to be led by Gazidis, who is known to have a close relationship with Wenger and therefore is likely to rely heavily on his input. Wenger, for his part, has traditionally offered praise for managers who exhibit qualities similar to the ones he prizes: a preference for attacking, possession-based football and general tendency to develop players rather than spend money to buy in fully formed talents.
Another element that should not be overlooked, however, is the opinion of the club’s owner, Stan Kroenke. While hardly a hands-on owner, Kroenke seems to have a more active involvement in his club than the Glazers, the American owners at Manchester United, and likely will demand to be consulted extensively on any search for a new manager.
After all, the manager is integral to the investment he is hoping to protect. Forbes currently values the club at £846 million; falling out of the Champions League under a new manager could wipe £200 million or more from that total, just as some sustained success at home and in Europe could push that total near the £1 billion mark (Manchester United, by way of comparison, is currently valued at over £2 billion).
Kroenke is an experienced sports team owner, holding stakes in NBA's Denver Nuggets (which he is currently in the process of selling) and owning the NFL's St Louis Rams.
The recent coaching (and general manager) hires of both clubs might therefore be somewhat instructive.
Since taking control of the Rams in 1995, Kroenke has overseen the hiring of coaches with all manner of different profiles—occasionally going for big names with experience, occasionally hiring men with no prior head coaching experience in the NFL and even infrequently promoting from within.
Most recently, after a failed experiment with a first-time head coach regarded as one of the best tactical minds in the NFL (Steve Spagnuolo), the Rams hired a wise old head with a respectable, if not especially impressive CV (Jeff Fisher).
Considering the success of Wenger’s reign, it seems probable that Kroenke and his brain trust will try to find someone with experience at a similar level—and perhaps someone with a similar personality, preferring a calm presence over a media manipulator like Mourinho, for example.
Fail to plan, plan to fail
The problem, of course, is that like-for-like replacements do not always work. The appointment of Moyes, who shares many similarities with a young Ferguson, is current evidence of that.
What seems to be more important than anything is finding a manager with a clear, advanced approach to the tactical side of the game and a man capable of getting his players to buy into that system and deliver results.
Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers, for example, have both succeeded on Merseyside because of their clear dedication to open and attacking football, along with an ability to get their players to commit to the dirty work—the high pressing line and diligent tracking back that modern football demands.
In a "horses for courses" kind of way, the same can be said for Tony Pulis at Crystal Palace. Moyes, for all the misfortune that has undoubtedly befallen him, still has to prove he has a playing style to deliver success at Old Trafford or the ability to get his players to deliver it.
Arsenal at least have the advantage of being one of the most attractive jobs in world football. They can almost take their pick from all candidates in the game, rather than scramble around searching for anyone willing to take on the challenge.
It is an advantage that United, so it currently seems, failed to take advantage of. With three years to plan, Arsenal should at least start doing some preliminary research to try and ensure they do not fall into a similar trap.
Some potential candidates to replace Wenger
The Spaniard has impressed since joining Everton, getting the club competing with the top six by playing an attractive playing style. Despite a decade of success under Moyes, the Toffees seemed to have bought into Martinez’s methods almost immediately—something that has impressed Wenger.
I don't remember—it is a long time ago—but the dedication, certainly yes. Martinez has a positive philosophy. Above all, what you want is that he tries to play good football. That for me, is a good basis to go forward and move higher up.
Martinez’s philosophy would appear to fit in with the modern Arsenal style, while success with Everton (top-six finishes, runs in cup competitions and Europe) would add valuable weight to his CV.
The current Roma manager has a track record of success, winning the French title with relative minnows Lille in 2011 and then turning Roma into unlikely challengers this term.
That turnaround has been especially impressive considering the number of players who were sold (and then, by necessity, bought) by the club last summer, suggesting Garcia has approach to the transfer market that might appeal to Arsenal’s more conservative stylings.
Sacrilegous as it might be to suggest it, Garcia might even be a better motivator than Wenger—if we judge that solely on Gervinho’s revitalised performances since moving to Rome.
A former player under Wenger while both were in Japan, Stojkovic—known to his mentor as “Piksi”—has long been linked as Wenger’s preferred long-term successor, due to their shared footballing philosophy.
In 2011, Wenger was quoted as telling Serbia newspaper Vecernje Novosti (via Sky Sports):
I'd love Piksi to be my successor.
There are a hundred reasons for that. His football philosophy is almost identical to mine. Our ideas are the same and we both strive for perfect football.
I knew he was going to have his teams playing attacking football with many passes. He has done that, showing he will be a great coach. I told him that if he could transmit his football imagination to his players he would fly high.
After replacing Pat Rice as Wenger’s assistant manager ahead of the 2012-13 season, Bould was immediately lavished with praise by the British media after Arsenal’s defensive record improved noticeably to start the campaign.
Since then, however, the ex-defender has taken more of a back seat yet, having worked alongside Wenger for a number of years, he may end up being the option that offers the most continuity if and when Wenger moves on.
“Steve Bould has been doing really well,” Gunners legend Patrick Vieira told Colourful Radio (via Daily Mail) in 2011. '”If I had to say a name then it would be him because he deserves it.”
The Dortmund boss is one of the most popular managers in world football, due in no small part to the good humour in which he has dragged Borussia Dortmund to success at home and in Europe—despite the constant difficulty of fighting off the Bayern Munich behemoth.
But the Munich machine—which continues to steal Dortmund’s best players—might eventually prove too dispiriting for Klopp, who might eventually see Arsenal as a step up in his career.
His good English, personable demeanour and experience of league and cup challenges would all make him an attractive proposition to the Arsenal hierarchy—especially if the German contingent at the club continues to grow over the next few seasons.