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Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Whither Arsenal?

Arsene Wenger has been the manager of Arsenal for twenty years.  For the past 19 seasons, the Gunners have finished in the top four in the EPL and have qualified for the Champions League.  They also have a change to do so this year.  For the past seven years, they lost in the first round of the knockout round in the Champions League.  Among the excuses -- that the Gunners needed money to pay for their palatial stadium in North London and couldn't pay for players the way their competition did.  While Arsenal fans didn't expect a perennial reprise of the Invincibles squad that went undefeated in the EPL about 13 years ago, they did expect to challenge for more trophies and titles than the team has since that time.

Critics and pundits abound.  The big question is not whether Wenger is a good manager -- he has proven that -- but whether he has exhausted his possibilities in North London and the team needs to move on.  Put differently, Wenger in recent years seems to have been a tinkerer, someone fond of looking for a missing piece, of finding joy in an incomplete player or in the possibilities of youth.  While the Arsenal teams play in the rarified air of the EPL, something has prevented the team from finding a core of players that has the killer instinct to win trophies. 

So, perhaps, the question is whether Wenger can find that core of players again or whether the team needs to move onto a younger generation of manager with a different philosophy and approach that perhaps can relate better to this generation of player and can elevate Arsenal back to its super-elite status amidst fervent completion from City, United, Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea. 

A fundamental principle of human resources management is that if you seek to remove any employee, you better make sure that the replacement is better.  In Wenger's case, that's a difficult challenge.  While it might be clear to some that he has gotten someone stale in the job or at least has lost his magic touch, that doesn't mean that there are better managers out there who could fare better with whatever wallet the Arsenal owners have given Wenger or the players current on the roster.  Remember, this is one of the best managers of all time, and remember that both David Moyes and Louis van Gaal struggled at Old Trafford when trying to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson.  (For U.S. fans, everyone knew that Philadelphia had to move on from Andy Reid, who had struggled in his final years on the job -- but Chip Kelly proved to be a disaster after a good first season in Philadelphia.  Put simply, Reid is an excellent coach, and perhaps there are only a half a dozen in the NFL who are better than he is.  Eagles' fans don't lament Reid's departure, but they are frustrated with what they perceive to be lame attempts to find a worthy successor). 

I will not address who possible successors might be.  I had thought several years ago that after his success at Dortmund Juergen Klopp might have been the person, but he moved to Liverpool to replace Brendan Rogers several years ago.  The truth there is that Klopp's record during his tenure at Liverpool is by a hair better than Rogers' was during the same time period.  Then again, Chelsea's succession plan -- Conti for Mourhino -- looks like genius.

It strikes me that after the meltdown against Bayern Munich in the Champions League and after the benching of Alexis Sanchez for a dustup in practice leading up to the Liverpool game, that something is wrong in North London.  It could be that Arsenal rallies and plays great football to earn a top-four finish in the EPL; the odds say otherwise, that they might end up on the outside looking in.  They won't get past Chelsea or, for the first time since Wenger has been at Arsenal, Tottenham, and passing City might be iffy, too.  So, it could be a three-way mad dash for fourth against United and Liverpool. 

Those problems in North London have persisted over the years -- finding the right defensive midfield combination, consistent scoring from the strikers and enough toughness at midfield, plus the many injuries that key players have suffered over time.  Right now, the chemistry isn't there, and typically when it's absent for a while, the master chemist gets sacked.  Arsenal must treat Wenger with fairness and with dignity, but it increasingly looks like they will be looking to make a change after the season concludes.  There just has not been sufficient progress over the past five years to conclude otherwise.


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