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Mikel Arteta and the changing role of the manager

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Linking Mikel Arteta to the Arsenal job shows that Arsenal are up to date with the evolving role of the manager in top-level sport.

Swansea City v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

In some ways, Mikel Arteta being linked with the Arsenal managerial job is no surprise. While only officially the club captain for two seasons, Arteta was effectively the captain for two seasons more, and, along with Per Mertesacker and Robin van Persie, helped stabilize an Arsenal team that, having lost 8-2 to Manchester United, accrued one point from its first three games, and had lost Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, was in real danger of floundering.

And in many ways, Arteta has had the ideal preparation for managing: coming through La Masia, playing with someone like Mauricio Pochettino at Paris St. Germain, playing for Arsène Wenger, and now coaching for Pep Guardiola. His playing philosophy, furthermore, makes sense, as he describes in a 2014 interview: “I want the football to be expressive, entertaining. I cannot have a concept of football where everything is based on the opposition. We have to dictate the game, we have to be the ones taking the initiative, and we have to entertain the people coming to watch us.”

That Arsenal would, presumably, be happy to take Arteta on without any previous managerial experience speaks not only to Arteta’s qualities but also to the evolving role of the manager in top-level sport. The usual route for a young manager is to manage at a lower-level before getting a top job. Mauricio Pochettino, for example had 221 games managing Espanyol and Southampton before getting the Tottenham job. Pep Guardiola is perhaps an exception, but he had a season managing Barcelona B in the fourth division, so there was a body of work to be examined.

The evolving managerial role, though, has a lot to owe to the importance of front offices, and the growing role of front offices in the day-to-day life of a team. In Major League Baseball, two of last year’s playoff teams, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, have hired rookie managers. The Red Sox hired Alex Cora, who had one season as the bench coach of the Houston Astros, and was the general manager of the Puerto Rico World Baseball Classic team. The Yankees hired Aaron Boone, who has spent the last 7 years as a TV analyst for ESPN, and has never coached. The New York Mets hired Mickey Callaway, the pitching coach of the Cleveland Indians, whose managerial experience is one season in low-level college baseball. All of these teams are happy with relatively inexperienced managerial candidates because the role of the manager is becoming a conduit of front office thought, while managing the clubhouse. In-game decisions are of course the remit of the manager, but they’re going to be strategies developed in partnership with the front office. The managerial role, then, is becoming a middle-management communicating role more than anything else.

This is not only in Major League Baseball. Sean McVay, the coach of the Stan Kroenke-owned Los Angeles Rams, has never been a head coach before this season. Tyronn Lue had been an assistant and then associate head coach before taking the Cleveland Cavaliers’ job in the middle of the 2015-16 season. Steve Kerr went into coaching the Golden State Warriors after being the general manager for the Phoenix Suns. Across top-level sport, there is increasing evidence that having ‘experience’ managing is no longer the demand it once was. Rather, the composition of a front office, and the philosophy of a front office will have more bearing; for it is the front office that acquires players.

Ivan Gazidis and Arsenal have been assembling a front office team: Per Mertesacker is going to be the Academy Director, Sven Mislintat is the chief scout, and Raul Sanllehi has been hired to be the Not The Director of Football but the Director of Football Relations. This not only points to developing a backroom staff, but a backroom staff with a specific playing style: Mertesacker, having played for Arsenal and the Germany national side, Mislintat having worked for Borussia Dortmund, and Sanllehi, who worked for Barcelona. This points to a team that will be of ball-players, and in Arteta, they have a possible manager who works within that style:

I think you need to adapt. You can have an idea of a system, but you need to be able to transform it depending on the players you have – how much pace you have up front, how technical your team is, what types of risk you can take and whether your players are ready to take those risks. It’s important to analyse your players because you can’t always play the same way. There have to be different details and changes in how you approach things, and you have to look at how you can hurt whoever you are playing against. Is there something they don’t like to do? If so, we’re going to make them do plenty of it.

There has been pushback to the idea of Arteta managing Arsenal because he hasn’t managed before. But having played, been captain and coached means that he has an idea of the role of the job. Furthermore, the very job description is changing; for once, Arsenal look like they may be changing with the times.