Arsene Wenger is a relic of modern football. He comes from a time of one man shows, meager TV deals and the ability to unearth players no one else has heard of, turning them into superstars. Now, teams work with Directors of Football and assistants who are big names, everyone is being paid and superstars are identified at the age of 12. The one thing Wenger has over everyone else is he’s still here.
Response to the extension has been, understandably mixed, between bad, good and being scared of the future. With Arsenal slumping to 5th in the League, missing out on Champions League for the first time in 20 seasons, yet winning their record 13th FA Cup, it is hard to determine what the future holds for the team. Keeping the manager that has built and rebuilt the team yet fail to get significantly closer to a League title or success in the Champions League in the latter half of his tenure seems like a bad idea. That the board is unwilling to pull the trigger on this floundering league side has been identified as a lack of leadership and a group frightened of change or a hit to their financial standing.
Yet, given recent information, it speaks to a more unsettling situation: The Arsenal board is wholly unprepared to replace their manager.
Wenger’s future has been a bit of a hot potato for months now. Ever since a disastrous February, questions began to grow increasingly louder as to whether the Frenchman would continue at Arsenal. Wenger, like the stalwart gentleman that he is, deflected as best he could, telling all that the situation would be made known... in March. Then in April. Then May. The answer never came leading to reports that Wenger was not talking to the board.
The very idea that they were keeping everyone in the dark, even Wenger, suggested a change was coming. Instead, the board took the agreement talked over in November and ratified it, leaving everything the same for two more years. It suggests it was their only option, faced with the choice of no replacement even looked at and a manager the players seem to love and who’d just won the FA Cup. Frankly, they had no choice because they refused to act earlier.
Which brings us to now. While a lot of talk will be made about who the team will sign or retain to build a stronger team, the real task for Arsenal’s board is to now set the framework for Wenger’s replacement, something they’ve seemingly neglected to do before. Failure to do so means they’ll face the same situation in two years and potentially slipping into the same mire other clubs with legendary managers have face. The void left by Sir Alex Ferguson is partially responsible for the utter floundering of David Moyes and, to a lesser extent, Louis Van Gaal. It took the massive personality of Jose Mourinho and hundreds of millions to right their ship to find their way back to the Champions League, despite still being outside of the top four and don’t look remotely like a league winning side. Arsenal need to avoid this at all costs now that the top portion of the league is more competitive than ever.
The good news is there are rumblings that this is something they recognize. Ivan Gazidis reportedly has provisions to the new contract that the transition of power needs to be addressed. If true, it feels imperative that they begin now rather than wait-and-see for two reasons.
Firstly, the team finds themselves in a tough spot. Out of the Champions League, well off the League Title and with a few disgruntled stars to attempt to retain, Arsenal need to improve. Failure to do so could lead to the dismantling of the current team. Should that occur, Wenger is not the man to do it. No improvement over the last few seasons spells the end of the older crop (Alexis, Ozil, Koscielny, Giroud, Cazorla, etc) who’ll all be on the older side and looking for teams with a shot at winning. For Wenger to begin a rebuild in the final year of a contract that likely won’t be extended again would be counter-intuitive to future stability. The next team should belong to a new manager and the board has to be prepared to fire Wenger after another “bad” showing.
Secondly, Wenger is reaching the end of his career, too. Not wanting to be ageist, it remains that Wenger will end this current contract at the age of 69 (don’t break your fingers rushing to respond here). That’s up there in terms of manager age. It’s a long, grueling job that rarely ends. He likely has years still in him but one cannot expect it to last forever. He probably doesn’t want to manage anywhere else but retirement is coming.
The current extension truly feels like Arsene Wenger’s last or, at very least, should be treated as such. Perhaps he remakes the team on the current 3-4-2-1 system and wins a few more trophies leading to another two years. But should it not, the team has to be prepared for the next guy, which means planning now. One year to set the framework and one year to start looking. With luck, Wenger will know that his term is ending and can have his farewell tour, a la SAF. The man deserves it for all he’s given the club and league. But if the board remains unprepared and incompetent enough not to find his successor, Arsenal will be a weaker club for it. There’s nothing to be “scared” of if you have a plan.
The time to make those contingency plans is now.