Power struggles are rarely simple, often quite ugly, and when made public, really, really messy. It has long been rumored that two Arsenal principals, Ivan Gazidis and Arsene Wenger, have been in the midst of such a struggle, over the former’s belief that the power and responsibilities of the club should be decentralized out of the hands of one person, and the latter quite happy to be that one person.
In that light, while an oral history of 2014-2018 Arsenal would be absolutely fascinating, we’ll probably never get the whole story of how we got to the point where Arsene Wenger made the decision to depart the club he’d served for the last 22 seasons, or whether it was even his decision to make.
But in the wake of that seismic event, and in the runup to the apparently inevitable announcement of Unai Emery as new manager, we do occasionally get bits and pieces of the dynamic behind the scenes at the Emirates, which give us a little insight as to how we got here. One such bit and piece came out today in the Guardian, and while it’s not necessarily dirt-slingingly tabloidy in nature, it’s the closest Arsenal has been to that in a long time.
The piece, which is about Gazidis’ now-complete restructuring of the Arsenal front office, is in no way a hit job on Wenger, but it does shade slightly in the direction of “Ivan gave me permission to write this”. It gives us a little peek behind the curtain, and it does illustrate just how much control Wenger had at the club as time went on. One of the things that we all suspected was true - Wenger did in fact have Stan Kroenke’s ear and have Stan on his side:
Wenger had a hotline to Kroenke and he could shape or veto Gazidis’s ideas. Gazidis wanted a director of football but Wenger pushed his friend Dick Law into a position of executive-level authority. Gazidis wanted greater expertise in data and contracts and hired Hendrik Almstadt only for Wenger to say he did not want him.
Additionally, Arsenal’s vaunted purchase of StatDNA was something Wenger was not a fan of, which in an age of advanced analytics is a bit of a disappointment. Most germane to where we are today, though, was this little nugget:
Gazidis wanted to find a role for (Mikel) Arteta after he retired as a player at the club in 2016 but Wenger had warned that “you cannot create artificial positions”.
Again: I’m not trying to insinuate that Wenger was an evil tyrant, nor do I wish to dance on his Arsenal-coaching-career grave here. I’m just very interested in seeing what the dimensions of “Wenger is the sole person in charge at Arsenal” look like, and what the future consequences of the decisions he made as that sole person in charge might be. The fact that Mikel Arteta, who everyone really thought might make a great Arsenal manager, like, three days ago, was denied the chance to start his coaching career at Arsenal by Arsene Wenger is a little tough to take, from a development perspective.
“You cannot create artificial positions” is something my boss, with actual budget constraints and a relatively fixed workload, would be well within his rights to say. On a sports team, though? No. I only have to look as far as 185 miles up the road from me to see the most recent example of exactly that - after a few months, it became plain to everyone that Ichiro, beloved Mariner legend turned “what, really, he’s back now?” guy, was no longer capable of holding a spot on a major league roster.
So what did the Mariners do? They made him “special assistant to the GM”, which means he can work out with the team and take BP and help coach, but can’t be on the bench during games. That way, they don’t lose his expertise and his willingness to work with younger players. You can’t tell me Arsenal couldn’t have done something like that for Arteta, had Arsene wanted him around.
While I still believe Wenger is one of the best managers of all time, anywhere, I think it’s entirely fair to criticize his lack of evolution in the last seven to 10 years of his time at Arsenal. In an age where data became paramount, Wenger was reticent to use it, and in a game where connections can be important, two of the biggest names in Arsenal’s recent history, and two of the most important pieces of Arsene Wenger’s success at Arsenal, are now learning their coaching trade under the guidance of one of Arsenal’s...well, they used to be competitors, but are now operating at a level Arsenal aspire to reach.
It’s said that a Premier League season is a marathon, not a sprint. If that’s true, Arsenal are now starting the marathon 450 yards behind everyone else in the elite runners’ division, and that frustrates me, because it was all so avoidable.