Arsenal are preparing for life after Arsene Wenger, Harry Becker looks at the changes required for this democratic transition.
Something is happening at Arsenal Football Club. For over two decades, this corner of North London has been the sole domain of one man: Arsene Wenger. During this time, Wenger has moulded the club in his own image. The club’s values are Wenger’s values; its transfer policy, his transfer policy; its playing style, absolutely and distinctly Wenger-ian. Wenger is the last of the all-powerful manager class – not just responsible for what happens within the confines of the carpet-like turf at the Emirates Stadium – but uniquely and distinctly ingrained into the daily running of what has become a global behemoth. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Wenger personally interviewed London Colney’s tea lady.
But Wenger’s dictatorial reign, for so long glorious, is now teetering on the brink of collapse. Discontent is rife. Revolution is a word no longer whispered in dark corners but openly, brazenly, clamoured for. If Arsenal was a nation and Wenger its ruler (to make obvious this rather unwieldy metaphor), the streets would be on fire.
“I’ve not really liked their defending for a long time,” said Gary Neville after Arsenal’s 3-0 defeat to Manchester City in the League Cup Final. “I’ve not really liked their leadership, the character, and the spirit on the pitch, but you’ve always liked the football – I don’t even like the football anymore. The last bastion has gone.” This is not just a run of bad form – this is a deep-rooted malaise that Wenger seems unable to solve.
The question, then, is how the club moves into a post-Wenger world. Were Wenger toppled through bloody revolution last summer, a gaping power-vacuum would have been the result. With no clear succession planning in place, this would have been disastrous.
But the transfer of power does not necessarily have to be so cataclysmically brutal. It can (actually, should) be peaceful. Think post-Franco Spain in the 1970s – a successful transfer of power that began with Franco’s death in 1975 and ended in 1977 with Spain’s first democratically free election since 1936, and the approval of a new constitution in 1978. Democratic reform did not happen overnight, but piecemeal, over the course of a number of years. At the same time, a measure of political continuity was key in gaining support for reform from both the army and Franco-ist factions in the National Council and Cortes Generales.
Of course, historical comparisons are rarely going to match the machinations of those in charge of a football club, but I hope you can see what I’m getting at. In April 2017, Arsenal’s much-maligned Chief Executive called for a ‘catalyst of change’ and indicated that there would be a review into the way the club was run. Wenger, according to several reports at the time, was in agreement and had promised to reinvent himself. Reform was promised. The summer came and went. Darren Burgess, a conditioning expert, and Huss Fahmy, a legal expert, were the only notable additions off the pitch. Wenger was handed a two-year contract. The ‘catalyst for change’, it seemed, was all talk.
Two much more noteworthy changes have since been made that should give us cause to revise that opinion – and our opinion of Gazidis. Sven Mislintat, formally the head scout at Borussia Dortmund, joined Arsenal as the new head of recruitment in November 2017. And then on February 1, 2018, Raul Sanllehi, former director of football at Barcelona, was appointed Head of Football Relations. These appointments are significant – more so than any player transfer – although they may have received far less attention than Aubameyang’s arrival in North London.
Mislintat and Sanllehi represent a shift away from the Wenger-centric model. These are experienced, senior people with proven track records at top-European clubs. That Gazidis was even able to secure their services at all is remarkable – Bayern Munich were reportedly interested in bringing Mislintat in as their sporting director – and it seems unlikely that they will have joined to be Wenger’s juniors. No, in the short term, they join as Wenger’s equals. In the long term, they signify, finally, some strategic thinking from Arsenal’s powers that be. These are the men that, in footballing terms, will be guiding the club once Wenger departs. The fact that they have time to bed in while Wenger remains in charge will help the transition.
Mislintat comes with a remarkable reputation in talent-spotting (something Wenger used to be known for) and is credited with bringing the likes of Ousmane Dembele, Shinji Kagawa, Robert Lewandowski and Mat Hummels to Dortmund for minimal fees. Kagawa, who was signed after just 11 appearances in J.League Division 1, is of particular note given the fact that Wenger’s forays into the Asian market have so far been rather unsuccessful, despite his tenure at Nagoya Grampus Eight.
If Mislintat is about finding raw talent, Sanllehi operates at the other end of the spectrum. As Sporting Director at Barcelona for 14 years, Sanllehi is one of football’s most canny negotiators – and has been at the heart of building Barcelona’s teams during this time. He was instrumental in the deal that brought Neymar to Barcelona in 2014. In fact, so enamoured were Neymar’s parents with Sanllehi that he was the only person they were willing to talk to when relations between Barcelona and the player turned sour last year. Arsenal has real financial power to play with, and the Spaniard, with his charisma, South American contacts and his willingness to work with the world’s super-agents, will be instrumental in pulling off the large deals.
In a recent interview with Andrew Mangan on The Arsecast, the BBC’s David Ornstein claimed that, “[Arsenal] were renowned around Europe for negotiating penny by penny, pound by pound…they got a reputation of being a laughing stock of major European clubs when it came to the negotiating table. I’ve spoken to people who were minded to walk away from the negotiating table, even on small deals.” Looking at Arsenal’s transfer negotiations since the departure of David Dein, this certainly rings true. With luck, Sanllehi’s arrival means the days of £40,000,001 are behind us.
It is perhaps no coincidence that this January transfer window was one of Arsenal’s busiest. Coquelin, Walcott, Giroud, and Sanchez have all left the club. Aubameyang, Mikhitaryan and young Greek defender Mavropanos have all come in. And, of course, Mesut Özil finally signed a new contract. The magnitude of this on-pitch revolution cannot be overstated. Perhaps not since 2007 have we seen such an upheaval. Our top three goal scorers have all left the club in one transfer window. Ramsey, a midfielder, is now our top scorer on 53. It all feels distinctly un-Wenger like: Arsene Wenger puts trust in his players when others would have long ago lost patience; the Sanchez-Mikhitaryan swap deal involved negotiating with Mikhitaryan’s so-called super agent Mino Raiola – something Wenger has historically been reluctant to do; Mavropanos was signed on Mislintat’s recommendation and Aubameyang with his Dortmund connections.
But the transfer of power is not yet fully complete. We can see all the hallmarks of latter-day Wenger-ism here too. Crying out for a midfield enforcer and dominant centre half? Oh, just bring in a lightning-quick forward, a diminutive playmaker, and a kid with potential. To quote Ornstein again, “Wenger still has the final say on everything at Arsenal. There is no deal that is coming in or out of the club without his approval. He will stop any deal he wants to stop and he will potentially start any deal he wants to start.”
The next six to eighteen months will be the transition. Ultimately, I think results will be the deciding factor on how long Wenger remains in charge. Following a 2-1 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion, Arsenal have now lost four games on the trot and it’s now hard to look beyond the summer when it comes to Wenger’s future. Moreover, he has often expressed distaste at working under a sporting director, and handing power over to Mislintat and Sanllehi may grate. Yet, he is probably wise enough to see the advantages of having a support structure around him, one that he hasn’t known since David Dein’s departure in 2007. More importantly, perhaps, Arsene Wenger will be concerned about his legacy – both immediate and long-term. Can he leave the club in a better state than he found it? Can he help prepare it for his exit?
History shows us that democratic transitions are rarely easy. Things often get worse before they get better. Spain’s transition to democracy post-Franco was largely successful as these things go, and even that wasn’t without its issues. In 1981, 200 armed officers of the Guardia Civil stormed the Congress of Deputes in an attempted coup d’état. The transition years also saw a steep increase in terrorism from both Basque separatists and Maoist revolutionaries.
The progress of nations (and football clubs) is not a straight line – and things at Arsenal are likely to get worse before they get better. We are in for a long and bumpy road.