One would think I’ve missed the boat for a doleful piece on Arsenal. After all, the time for pessimistic sentiments should have been in the aftermath of their dismal showing in defeat to Olympiacos last Tuesday. Now the bulk of Arsenal’s players go into the international break on the back of thumping Manchester United 3-0. All is rosy in the Emirates garden again. What could there possibly be to worry about?
I imagine the crossover between fans of the Premier League and Game of Thrones is probably negligible. But Arsenal have a problem on the horizon that is redolent of a key theme in the aforementioned fantasy show.
Musa Okwonga once opined that all involved in the scramble for power in Westeros are being blinded by the trees, and losing sight of the forest. Because in the distance, the White Walkers – in a clear allegory for the threat of climate change – draw ever closer; a force so indiscriminately destructive that it threatens to render all the characters internecine betrayal and duplicity petty and redundant.
By the same token, the febrile nature of conversation among Arsenal fans focuses on numerous topics concerning the health of the club, apart from the most important one.
Forget spending money, mental strength, and even Wenger in/out, because Arsenal are approaching a liminal moment in the long-term future of the club. The real concern shouldn’t be if Wenger should still be the manager, but what’s the plan for when he’s not. Because at some point – probably not too far in the future – Arsenal will need a new person at the helm.
Wenger’s current contract is up at the end of the 2016/17 season, so it would be nothing short of negligent by the club’s executives to not already be laying inchoate foundations for a succession plan. The problem is that they don’t appear to have much of a plan. Where winning football matches are concerned, they don’t appear to have much of a clue.
At last year’s AGM, club chairman, Sir Chips Keswicksaid of Arsene Wenger; “It’s not up to me as chairman to decide on football, not the fans, it’s up to Arsene Wenger… If he has a plan we back it, if he doesn’t have a plan we keep quiet.”
Beyond Wenger, who at Arsenal has any kind of football pedigree to ensure that the team remain (relatively) competitive? There’s no doubt that he has made errors, and that coaches exist who could probably do a superior job. But how many elite coaches work without a person above them who takes care of duties such as player acquisition, salary negotiations, and financial sponsorships, leaving the head coach to focus on getting his players to perform to their optimum on the pitch.
Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone, even Jose Mourinho. They all work under this structure. And while Jurgen Klopp is currently being touted as Liverpool’s saviour, much of the credit for his success at Borussia Dortmund was down to its sporting director, Michael Zorc.With Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Wenger is probably the last of omnipotent managers. No Champions League club has their manager so embedded in their makeup than Arsenal (unconfirmed rumours suggest he even had a hand in the design of the Emirates Stadium). It’s a rum irony that the names are so similar. For nearly 20 years, Arsene has been indivisible from Arsenal.
The latitude afforded to the Frenchman from his employers extends to him not only choosing his own time to leave the Emirates, but also eschewing a timetable for his departure, with Wenger recently declaring he “will be more instinctive” about stepping aside, rather than giving a set date.
But even if Wenger won’t plan in advance, Arsenal’s board need to. While Wenger has struggled at times to navigate choppy waters, he’s been steering the ship on his own. Whenever he takes his leave, it’s foolhardy to expect the job to be handled by only one person in the future. To consolidate their position in the English game, Arsenal need clarity in how they will manage their affairs.
Who will take coaching? Who will sign the players? What will the budget be for transfers and wages? Will the style of football have to change? Much like Ed Woodward at Manchester United, Arsenal’s chief executive, Ivan Gazidis is a money man parachuted into the world of football. And while Gazidis knows how to monetise the club, he’ll no longer be able to say, “Let Arsene handle it”, and continue to count his money when issues arrive in his in-tray in about 18 months.
Much like Game of Thrones, Arsenal’s own personal winter is coming. If they don’t take the necessary steps to secure their house, it won’t take long for them to be frozen out of the elite of the English and European game.
 – Yes. that’s an actual name, It’s often forgotten how far back Arsenal’s links go with the upper-classes of Britain.