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Arsenal need more than just a new manager

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Arsene Wenger is nearing the end at Arsenal. Only by making a success of the next two hires will the club ensure the period after is not one of hardship.

Aston Villa v Arsenal - FA Cup Final Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Arsène Wenger is coming to the end of his Arsenal tenure. Even if last night’s debacle hadn’t occurred—had instead been a respectable 2-1 or 3-1 defeat that gave Arsenal some hope for the second leg—Arsène Wenger would be approaching the end. He is, after all, 67, and were he to sign a new contract, it would only be for two seasons, meaning we’d get to do this whole charade all over again in about 18 months. Last night, and a string of nights like last night before mean this whole process looks to be sped up, and Arsenal very much have to be on the front foot in searching for, contacting and hiring a replacement for Wenger. However, Arsenal do not just need to get the next hire right; they need to get the next two hires right.

The next two hires, however, should not be the next two managers. Rather, they should be the next manager, and a Director of Football. The position, once alien to English football and treated with the usual suspicion of foreign things, like zonal marking, passing and winter breaks, is gaining traction in the upper echelons of English football. It is wildly common on the continent: every major European club (and most minor clubs) have one, as do Everton, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.

Arsenal do not have one, and do not have one on the board really suited to fulfilling the role, hence making an external appointment a necessity. Ivan Gazidis is perhaps the closest to the position, but as Gordon Smith explains, the director is really a football pitch related job:

The person who goes into that job actually has to operate the strategy of the club...You're looking at a medium to long term strategy. What you're looking at is to say 'OK we need to put things in place; the club in general has to run in a certain way'. The first team will still have a coach and there will still be pressure on the first team manager to deliver results. But other than that, you need to put something in place for the club as a whole in terms of youth development and the scouting department and everything to do with the media and all that sort of thing so the club runs in a very clear and good operative manner.

Really, the person closest to that description at Arsenal is Arsène Wenger, which lies the problem: Wenger is not the Director of Football, he is the manager, and when he goes, a lot of that decision making and strategy will go with him—and Wenger should not be the Director of Football, because it’d create too much distraction, pressure and intrigue. But such a position needs to be enacted to ensure that Arsenal have medium and long-term continuity, continuity which cannot be guaranteed by the new manager for several reasons: a) he might turn out to be bad, b) he might tired of the job, or c) Wenger, following Sir Alex Ferguson, is the last of the decades at one club manager.

The top clubs now cycle through managers, while retaining an ideology that drives recruitment, youth team development and long-term structure. That, for example, explains how Chelsea have had seven managers in seven years, and have still won two league titles (and are on pace for a third), two European titles, an FA Cup and a League Cup. The role of a Director of Football is to provide long-term stability, structure and strategy, while also maintaining flexibility for the demands of each manager. But more and more managers are coaches who work within the parameter of the team and players that have been given to them, much like head coaches in American sports. As Julian Nagelsmann, one of the game’s up and coming coaches, and someone who should absolutely be on Arsenal’s shortlist for the managerial position, says, in the future,

managers will have their philosophy but still be open to adapting to the opposition and the situation. You have to make such decisions based on your squad. If you have a lot of slow players then it’s hard to play a pressing game. Everyone has to find the style they want based on their squad. There’s no wrong or right or good or bad. Every way can be successful.

That will only be successful, though, if there is coherence from above. For so long, Arsenal’s manager has been their head coach and director of football. Beginning now, though, Arsenal need to join the rest of Europe’s elite in modernity, by separating the positions. The task will be enormous, but only by taking it on and getting it right will allow Arsenal to make the period after Wenger as successful as the twenty years proceeding it.