Whether Arsene Wenger stays or goes, Arsenal are set for major changes off the field. For the last few months, the scrutiny on Wenger’s future has been so intense that it has masked the requirement for broader evolution at Arsenal. However, the reality is that irrespective of whether the manager stays or goes, significant work is required to restructure the club.
Aside from the possibility of a new coach, there is an obvious need for at least two major appointments on the footballing side of the club. Andries Jonker has left his job as head of the academy, taking Freddie Ljungberg with him, to assume managerial duties at Wolfsburg. More recently, stories have begun to emerge suggesting that the club are identifying candidates for a potential ‘Director of Football’ role—someone to act as a go-between for Wenger and the board, and to help manage the transition whenever Wenger leaves.
Ideally, this sporting director would actually be involved in finding someone to run the youth set-up. Wenger has already stated that he is involved in the recruitment process, but the fact is the new director of football is likely to outlast the veteran manager. He will hopefully share a working relationship with the academy guru in the long-term. The debate over Wenger surrounds whether or not he should stay for the next two years—Arsenal need a sporting voice to offer them direction for the next decade.
What’s difficult to discern is whether these appointments are part of the club preparing for Wenger’s imminent departure, or simply attempting to put the necessary infrastructure in place for when he does go—either in 2017 or beyond.
Wenger himself has never seemed particularly keen on the idea of working with a Director of Football, telling The Mirror in 2013:
“I would not work with a director of football because they buy the players and when it does not work you are guilty for not using them well. I am not against having people to help me buy, sell and negotiate because I cannot do it all. But I think the final decision always has to belong to the manager to decide who comes in and who goes out because he is responsible for the style of play and results.”
As far back as 2007, Wenger was charged with appointing a Director of Football to replace David Dein—but no successful candidate ever really emerged.
However, presumably he recognises that if he is to stand any chance of staying at Arsenal, he needs to welcome a fresh approach. He recently alluded to his ability to “reinvent” himself, and working closely with a Sporting Director would be a significant concession.
He may have to accept a measure of change among his coaching staff too. For 20 years, Boro Primorac has been his right hand man—but there are now rumours that he could leave Arsenal to take up a post in Turkey. In the past, Wenger has smoothed over coaching departures with internal appointments—Pat Rice’s retirement, for example, was met with a promotion for academy coach Steve Bould.
However, if Primorac goes (and arguably even if he doesn’t), Wenger should seize the opportunity to bring in a new voice. Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted that one of the great secrets of his longevity was his willingness to work alongside younger coaches, who broadened his understanding of the game.
There are obvious deficiencies in Wenger’s coaching repertoire, particularly defensively. It would be of considerable comfort to the fans if the manager appointed a specialist to help him deal with that problem.
There are many who believe that even these changes would be simply cosmetic, and that Wenger’s reign has become too toxic to continue irrespective of what happens between now and the end of the season. However, if the club are utterly determined to see him continue, they do at least seem to be making changes which could not only rejuvenate their ailing manager, but will also lay the groundwork for his future successor.