When Arsene Wenger signed his most recent Arsenal contract in 2014, it was widely assumed it would be his last. After all, when he put pen to paper he was 64. An ashen-faced Wenger had been on the brink of stepping aside before a remarkable FA Cup win ignited hopes that he could restore the club to the summit of English football. His three-year deal should have dictated a timetable by which Arsenal could get ready for Wenger’s abdication. Instead, almost nothing has changed. Arsenal have had a chance to prepare for the inevitable—and they’ve done remarkably little.
Preparation is a big problem at Arsenal. Even for individual games, the Gunners often seem to take to the field without any discernible plan. However, failing to make provision for the club’s future in the post-Wenger era is a far greater concern.
When Wenger signed on three years ago, it should have been a condition of the agreement that he would help lay the groundwork for his departure. The most obvious move would have been the appointment of a designated Director of Football—someone with the vision and youth to outlast and replace some of Wenger’s duties on the executive side.
This football executive could have collaborated with Wenger on transfer negotiations, as well as helping shape the academy and ensuring the culture of the club was protected in the long-term. He might even have been the man charged with identifying Wenger’s ultimate replacement.
If planning had been sufficient, perhaps it could even have been an internal appointment. Ex-players like Thierry Henry are routinely linked with replacing Wenger, but such stories are fanciful at best. However, had Henry been brought into the club three years ago and steadily groomed for the role under Wenger’s tutelage, perhaps he would be considered to be in contention.
Neither of those things have happened. Arsenal’s coaching staff is much the same as it always has been, with Steve Bould’s promotion to assistant in place of Pat Rice hardly the most inspiring move. At executive level, there remains a troubling lack of football knowledge, with Wenger continuing to operate with autonomy.
The board would doubtless make the point that Wenger would have had to have been amenable to their suggestions. It’s certainly true that the Gunners boss finds the prospect of loosening his grip of the club hard, and to a certain extent his difficulty delegating has impeded Arsenal’s ability to plan.
However, this was undoubtedly the board’s responsibility. What are they for if not this? They should have made it clear to Wenger that his new contract was contingent on complying. After all, if Wenger cares about the future of Arsenal half as much as he suggests, he would surely have seen the sense in building a platform for the future.
Instead, all parties gambled on the possibility that Wenger would be in a strong enough position to continue. That wager looks to be on the verge of returning a definitive loss. Wenger is struggling for support among the fans, and by the looks of it, even his own players are close to giving up on him. The manner of the capitulation against Bayern suggested the squad don’t particularly care about the fate of their manager.
Now Arsenal find themselves on the verge of falling off a precipice and into the unknown. They had three years of opportunity to build a bridge to help them in precisely this scenario, and they squandered it. The repercussions of that will be significant—Arsenal might well hire a talented coach to succeed Wenger, but without the necessary infrastructure around him, will he be afforded a proper opportunity to succeed?
More worryingly, it’s possible that the board will once again do everything they can to keep Wenger in the job. That would be the simplest solution—although almost certainly not the best one for Arsenal.
Arsenal are a club perilously lacking in structure, and Wenger is the only thing holding them together. The problem is that he too seems to have reached the natural conclusion of his time at the club. Having singularly failed to prepare for this moment, Arsenal are in danger of falling apart at the seams. Wenger often rails against the fact that the modern media depict clubs as being in perennial crisis. However, when the manager goes, that’s exactly where Arsenal might end up.