Despite appearances to the contrary, Arsene Wenger cannot go on as manager forever. When he finally stands down (and after all the recent defeats an increasing number of fans hope it will be sooner rather than later), a new Arsenal manager must be sought.
However, it may be impossible for them to follow the model of their two most recent major managerial appointments, made when the club was at a crossroads similar to the one that it is approaching now and similarly considering a new direction.
The Past a Problem for Any New Arsenal Manager
MODEL ONE: THE LOWER DIVISION MANAGER
In the mid-1980s, Arsenal were in a similar position to the one they are in today. By 1986, it had been 15 years since they had last won a top-flight title, an unwanted record that will be matched by the club next year unless something extraordinary happens.
The team was also being led by a manager, Don Howe, who many fans had lost faith in, to the point of questioning his basic ability to do the job. Howe, of course, had been a legendary figure at Arsenal, having been the first team coach when the club had won the Double in 1971.
After unsuccessful managerial stints at West Brom and in Turkey with Galatasaray, he had returned to the club in 1977 under Terry Neill and when Neill was sacked six years later Howe became the new Arsenal manager. However, after two and a half fairly mediocre years, he was sacked in March 1986 and the Gunners had to find a new manager and with him a new direction, to end years of underachievement.
The club initially hoped to recruit Alex Ferguson from Aberdeen and to this day stories persist about whether Ferguson ever actually agreed to take the job, before eventually moving to Manchester United in November 1986.
Whatever the truth of those stories, Ferguson did not become the new Arsenal manager and so instead the club went for another Scot, George Graham, one whose managerial achievements up to that point were far less impressive than those of Ferguson.
Graham had played under Howe in the 1971 double-winning side, cheekily claiming to have scored the equaliser in the FA Cup final against Liverpool even though it was officially credited to Eddie Kelly. That had been the high-point of his career as a player and he eventually moved on to a post-Matt Busby Manchester United, before winding down his career in the lower divisions and North America.
Graham became a coach at Crystal Palace and QPR, before being appointed as the manager of Millwall at the end of 1982. Then as now, Millwall were probably known more for their unruly fans than for their footballing achievements, but Graham launched what was probably the greatest period in the history of the south London club.
First, he won promotion from the old Third Division before stabilizing the club in the old Second Division. Even after he left for Arsenal, the foundations that he had laid were sufficiently strong for Millwall to eventually be promoted to the top flight – the old First Division – for the only time ever (they lasted a single season before being relegated).
After failing to hire Ferguson, for whatever reason, Arsenal turned to Graham to take the helm in the summer of 1986, and it is fair to say that the initial reaction among Arsenal fans was almost as muted as that accompanying the appointment of Arsene Wenger a decade later.
Nevertheless, Graham, who as a player had been nicknamed “Stroller” for his seemingly leisurely style, was the absolute opposite of that as a manager, imposing an iron will and iron discipline on what had become an expensive but unruly squad.
In addition, he promoted youth players of the quality of Tony Adams and David Rocastle to replace older but idler first-team stars such as Kenny Sansom and Steve Williams.
The result was almost instant success, as Arsenal first won the League Cup in Graham’s debut season (their first trophy of any kind since the 1979 FA Cup) and then followed that two years later with the remarkable title win at Anfield (so recently remembered and celebrated in the film 89), before winning a second league title in 1991.
Arsenal did the “cup double” of League Cup and FA Cup in 1993 before Graham topped off his list of achievements at Arsenal by winning the Cup Winners Cup in 1994, against a powerful Parma side containing stars such as Gianfranco Zola.
However, by the 1994-95 season, Graham had begun to loosen his iron grip over the club, which led to a gradual slide down the league table, and the final straw came when it was revealed that he had taken a “bung” (or more plainly bribe) as part of a transfer deal.
He was sacked and initially, Arsenal tried to follow the same model they had adopted in 1986, by appointing another lower division manager and another Scot, Bruce Rioch, who had just led Bolton to promotion to the Premier League. However, after the team’s main stars, especially striker Ian Wright, fell out with Rioch, he was sacked after just a season and the club embarked on an entirely different course.
MODEL TWO: THE FOREIGN MANAGER
In 2018, when the lower divisions are almost as saturated with foreign managers as the Premiership, it is almost impossible to remember the confusion and mistrust that accompanied Arsene Wenger’s appointment as the new Arsenal manager in 1996.
It was famously summed up by the Evening Standard headline, “Arsene Who?” Just as in 1986, when Arsenal had appointed a lower division manager instead of Alex Ferguson, the club was generally criticised for appointing a foreign manager rather than a British one.
Of course, for the first 10 years under Wenger, it all worked out spectacularly well, as he built on Graham’s fabled defence (extending their careers by introducing new dietary and exercise regimes) by adding foreign attacking power in the form of Overmars, Anelka and above all Henry. That first decade under Wenger remains one of the greatest ever periods for any manager in English football history.
Arsenal won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups (including two league and cup Doubles) during these early years. It is often thought that it all culminated in the so-called “Invincibles” season of 2003-04, but in reality, it peaked two years later in the 2006 Champions League Final. Despite being down to 10 men for most of the game after goalkeeper Jens Lehmann had been sent off, Arsenal came within 13 minutes of beating the mighty Barcelona.
Indeed, if Thierry Henry had taken his one chance to score on the break, Arsenal would almost certainly have become European champions and Wenger would rightly have been feted as one of the greatest managers ever.
Since then, it has all been largely downhill, with the downward acceleration gathering pace over the last 18 months or so.
It has been well documented how Wenger has seemed to ignore the template that he himself created – one in which players such as Bergkamp, Henry and Viera were simultaneously physically powerful and sublimely skilful – and instead adopted another, far less successful one in which skill was prized above power, almost to the exclusion of any physical presence at all.
The 12 years since the 2006 Champions League final defeat have been, in comparison with the decade that preceded them, almost entirely forgettable, bar the memorable trio of FA Cup wins in the last four years and particularly the double-denying defeat of champions Chelsea last May.
However, Wenger has signally failed to build upon that cup success, to the extent that Arsenal are now, at absolute best, just a cup team and, arguably, after their recent humiliating defeat by Nottingham Forest, not even that.
So where do Arsenal go now?
Who Will be the New Arsenal Manager?
The major problem for Arsenal now is that the two routes that they have taken in their recent past – first in 1986, in appointing a lower division manager, and then in 1996 when they appointed a foreign manager – are now far more difficult to follow than they were in the past.
Such is the dominance of the Premier League that, in comparison with the lower divisions in England, it is now regarded as almost inconceivable that a club near the top of the Premier League (which Arsenal, despite all their recent calamities, still are) would appoint a manager from a lower division, as they did when they hired George Graham.
At worst, if it is an Englishman or a Briton named as new Arsenal manager, surely they would be a coach with Premier League experience.
However, there are precious few of those who are English or British, and it is questionable whether there is one capable of making the mighty step up to take over a club such as Arsenal, who should at the very least be competing for the Premier League title and Champions League qualification.
The two “outstanding” candidates, as it were, are Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe and Burnley’s Sean Dyche. Like George Graham more than thirty years ago, they have led their clubs through the leagues, with Howe overseeing Bournemouth’s remarkable rise from the lowest division in English professional football all the way to the Premier League.
Up until this season, he appeared to have the edge over Dyche, but the Burnley boss, in establishing his side not just as a Premier League club but as a top-half one, may now have overtaken Howe in that respect. Nevertheless, it is generally felt that neither man is sufficiently experienced as a manager to take over a club of the size and ambition of Arsenal.
However, the alternative route taken in the past is also more problematic now. Foreign managers are no longer frowned upon in England but actively sought.
The difficulty is that almost all the outstanding ones in recent years are already in the Premier League; Guardiola at Manchester City, Klopp at Liverpool, Conte at Chelsea, etc. Essentially, Arsenal have missed out on an entire wave of outstanding foreign managers in the last few years, and there are precious few of them left outside the Premier League.
The obvious exception is Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, but there are major problems in considering him as a replacement for Wenger.
First, he is not a fluent English speaker (indeed, he is said to be barely able to speak English at all), second, he has a strong emotional attachment to Atletico, who he played for before becoming their manager and may well want to oversee their transition to a new stadium, and third, if he is going to leave Atletico, he may well opt to go to Italy rather than England, given that he also played for several Italian teams, including Inter.
Consequently, there is no outstanding candidate – either a lower division (or at least lower Premier League) manager or a foreign manager – to replace Wenger, whenever he goes. Max Allegri at Juventus is touted as a possible candidate, but why would he want to leave the champions of Italy to take over at struggling Arsenal (other than for the obvious financial reasons)?
Also, his success at Juve has largely been down to building on the foundational work of Conte, and so his overall ability as a manager remains, at the very least, open to question.
Thus it is in 2018 that the Gunners are confronted with an almost complete lack of options when it comes to considering who might eventually replace Arsene Wenger as new Arsenal manager. Of course, that in itself is one of the major reasons to criticise Wenger for staying on so long (seemingly well past his “sell-by” date) and the club for allowing him to do so.
There is also a simple question of mathematics, or rather probability. On the last two occasions that a new Arsenal manager has been appointed and in the process adopted a different course – in 1986 and 1996 – they ultimately got lucky in appointing leaders who went on to achieve great success.
It is by no means certain that, whoever they appoint in the future, they will be lucky for a third time with the new Arsenal manager.
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