Arsenal must face life without Arsène Wenger one day
If Arsenal’s current form continues, someone will have to track down that disgruntled fan from the first day defeat to Aston Villa, whose position behind Arsène Wenger’s technical area and A3 sheet of paper adorned with “Spend Spend Spend” was a godsend to every photographer in the stadium.
Rarely in the history of modern football has the red cartridge of a standard inkjet desktop printer been pressed into more noble service than it was that day. After that game, the Arsenal Supporters Trust wrote an open letter to the board warning of Wenger holding “far too much power”. The fans’ “Black Scarf Movement” said “there hasn’t been a poisonous atmosphere like this at Arsenal for over 30 years” over lack of investment in the squad and ticket prices.
Arsenal spent, and 44 days on from that defeat – for the time being – all is well with the world. They have won nine straight games in all competitions (including the Capital One Cup). They are Premier League leaders after a weekend in which none of the other four clubs who finished in the top five last season managed a win between them, including embarrassing defeats for both Manchester clubs.
On top of that, Wenger is accomplishing it with injuries to six first-team players. Manchester United are the crisis club de jour and the Emirates on Tuesday night for the Champions League visit of Napoli should, on the face of it, be one happy family.
Caveats? It is early days yet. Arsenal’s fixture list in November and December looks much trickier. The old, deep-rooted issues are still there, especially around Wenger. But it is understandable that the club just want to enjoy the moment and the misfortune certain rivals are experiencing.
For the Arsenal board, it is all good news. Not least because they have always wanted to give Wenger a new contract, even in the dog days of those cup defeats to Bradford and Blackburn last season. Boardroom consensus on Wenger’s future has always been solid. Their problem has been the PR around it.
In February, when The Sun claimed Wenger was about to sign a new deal, he got so angry at what he considered the paper’s mocking tone, he turned on the wrong reporter with his unique variation on Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle: “Why do you look at me?”
Last week, the club’s owner Stan Kroenke made it clear that it was a question of if, not when, Wenger would sign a new contract and no one batted an eyelid.
The new deal is a fait accompli. It could well take Wenger into his late 60s. In those last years he may yet add to the seven major trophies he has won so far at the club. He may do it this season. He may never. But at some point in the next few years the question of his successor will have to be addressed.
Arsenal, like United, do not go through managers recklessly. There have been 11 permanent appointees in the job, post-war. To put that in perspective, there have been 13 different prime ministers in the same period, many of them considerably more unpopular than Wenger was in his bleakest times.
The question of succession is always difficult and sensitive. Yet this is Arsenal, who were far-sighted enough to embark on the Emirates project when they could have stayed at Highbury and enjoyed their turn-of-the-millennium status as one of the two best clubs in the country. This, like that new stadium, cannot eventually be ignored.
In short, as Arsenal place their immediate future in the hands of the man whose 17th anniversary in the job is today, they should be asking what kind of club Wenger will one day leave behind. Always better to ask that question when you still have the time to plan for it.
While it is far too early to make any judgement on David Moyes, Arsenal will have watched closely how United handled Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure. They will have noted that Moyes was anointed by his predecessor and that when the time came for Ferguson to retire there was never any question of one of his staff stepping up. Would it ever be different at Arsenal? For now, that looks highly unlikely.
The Wenger approach is captured beautifully by a snippet from Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s autobiography which reflects what many who know the Arsenal manager also say. The 19-year-old Ibrahimovic is in Wenger’s office at Arsenal’s training ground with an official from his then club Malmo, discussing a possible transfer.
“Something about Wenger set me off,” Ibrahimovic wrote. “He would leap up every so often to check who was outside his window. It seemed as if he wanted to keep an eye on everything.”
Wenger is, as one of his former players told me recently, the kind of manager who cannot stop himself peering at the next training pitch to see what is going on, even midway through a first-team session. He is out there, Kroenke said last week, in thunderstorms, at 63, an age by which Ferguson had delegated training.
Kroenke made clear last week that the total power Wenger has exercised over Arsenal will not be depleted in his final years. He will continue to look out of his window and consider himself master of all he surveys. That will never change. Will that also extend to him, one day, like Ferguson, effectively appointing his own successor?
It is too easy to say that Wenger’s successor will simply be defined by what he is left in the trophy cabinet – that if there is still no trophy since the last one in 2005 then the new man is on to a winner. It is more complex than that. Ferguson’s last act for United was not just winning a 13th title, it was his role in selecting Moyes, and the first-team squad and academy he left behind. A set of factors with far-ranging effects.
The great managers, like Wenger, have transformative effects on the clubs they manage. Their statues adorn the stadium for evermore. But they very rarely oversee a smooth transition of power, and often they militate against it. As Wenger approaches what could be his last Arsenal contract, you wonder if this most obsessive, single-minded of managers has it in him to break that pattern.