Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Match Preview, Southampton v Arsenal: Don't Believe the Hype

Occasionally, after particularly positive Arsenal results, I’ll break with pattern and review some immediate post-match analysis. I figure in so doing I can revel in the good feeling, which is one of the reasons I devote my time to following the club.

Such was my decision after the Gunners’ 2-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday. And I regretted it.

NBC Sports spent the first segment of its studio show talking about Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Nothing about who had performed well for Arsenal. Or about tactical adjustments that might have worked to Arsenal’s advantage. Nothing, even, about the Gunners’ ability to seize the moments that were presented them.

I then turned to The Guardian’s match report, hoping the hour or so of reflection had allowed its writer to reflect more substantively on the proceedings. Same story, essentially.

What’s this got to do with Arsenal’s match against Southampton on Wednesday?

It’s relevant because the obsession with the easy, popular narrative can make us miss some interesting developments. We’ll hear, for example, about the long odds of Arsenal’s qualification for the Champions League and about the club’s poor record at Southampton.

Both accurate observations, but not at all interesting.

Instead, we could be thinking about Danny Welbeck. He scored another winner against his former club on Sunday, and his attributes were part of Arsenal’s solution to an opponent’s blocking intentions. (Watch Adrian Clarke’s excellent Breakdown of some of the other moves, such as the deliberate movements of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil.)

Will Welbeck’s fitness permit another start so soon?

Or can the midfield partnership of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey continue to flourish? Again, fitness will play an essential role in the answer, what with Xhaka’s ongoing lower-leg woes. If the Swiss can go, that can only boost the team’s efforts to establish some flow through the midfield.

In defense, there’s a doubt about the availability of linchpin Laurent Koscielny, according to manager Arsène Wenger. Given his impressive contributions on Sunday and the wily play of Southampton striker Manolo Gabbiadini, Arsenal will be hoping the on-pitch captain can play. Without him, can Shkodran Mustafi come straight back from his own injury into a new system, and who’s going to marshal the defense from the central position in the back three?

These are all much more compelling questions to me than the unanswerable ones about the manager’s future, the team’s Champions League prospects, transfer needs, and history on the South Coast.

They’re drawn from the actual stuff of professional football—two groups of 11 elite athletes competing and, if we’re lucky, providing some surprises with their determination, physical gifts, and intelligence.

Like those two moments on Sunday when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Özil skipped over ham-fisted attempts by Wayne Rooney to tackle them.

Key Matchup


Manolo Gabbiadini against Arsenal’s central defenders. There’s been a noticeable improvement in Arsenal’s defense since the introduction of the 3-4-2-1 structure. Gabbiadini, despite being in woeful goalscoring form, creates a tricky challenge, with the likes of Nathan Redmond and Dusan Tadic supporting him.

Where to Worry


If Xhaka can’t play due to injury, Arsenal’s transitions will suffer. That’s especially concerning against Southampton because the Saints midfield is very skilled at disrupting the opposition’s flow. Would the response be a double pivot of Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain?

Match Verdict


I have no idea what to expect. Both teams had successful outings at the weekend. Arsenal still have something to play for but an abysmal road record of late. Southampton have little obvious motivation and problems scoring goals, but they enjoy the home support. Let’s just accept the uncertainty and see what happens.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. The England man scored twice here in the FA Cup this year. He also delivered the coup de grace to his old team on Sunday. He can make his case to lead the line for the rest of the season and, perhaps, beyond.

Southampton. Oriol Romeu. Southampton’s defensive midfielder has put in some standout performances this season. He’s a formidable barrier to the Saints’ somewhat makeshift back line.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Match Preview, West Brom v Arsenal: Bag the Big Picture

Arsenal need total focus on 90 minutes of football against West Bromwich Albion early Saturday.

Since the Gunners’ Champions League exit to Bayern Munich, manager Arsène Wenger’s future has dominated the discourse. One example: The manager’s press conference before the FA Cup quarterfinal against Lincoln City did not feature one question about the match itself. The only topic was Wenger’s career plan.

This did a huge disservice to Lincoln City, of course. It also perpetuated the boring, binary debate among Arsenal supporters.

In all likelihood, Arsenal’s players aren’t bothered with this contention. They have 12 league matches and an FA Cup semifinal date to concentrate on. Ignoring the role each plays in the overall assessment of the season could be critical to success.

The first of these fixtures certainly requires its own level of attention. West Brom manager Tony Pulis knows how to play the foil to Arsenal, configuring his teams to nullify skill on the ball as a matter of course.

The Baggies succeeded in the reverse fixture, holding Arsenal scoreless until a late header by Oliver Giroud carried the day for the Gunners.

How do Arsenal cope tactically with that approach, especially given confidence is not at the brim these days?

In particular, will Wenger pursue the three-man midfield he has introduced in recent weeks? The trio of Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided an interesting and effective departure from the longtime 4-2-3-1 system.

Against Lincoln City, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury prompted the reintroduction of Mesut Özil to the side. The German, returning from illness and suffering poor form since the turn of the year, seems the key figure of the 4-2-3-1. It’s geared to allowing him playmaking freedom with minimal defensive responsibilities.

But his return did not prompt the team to revert to 4-2-3-1. Instead, he played deeper in the midfield trio and asserted himself physically against the tiring Imps. Özil has also enjoyed great success with the German national team as part of an attacking trio.

The advantage of either Özil position for Arsenal is a more cohesive midfield. Offensively, the flow improves because more routes forward open; defensively, Arsenal are less vulnerable to counterattacks.

Both dynamics will be important against West Brom. The Baggies will try to congest the interior approaches to their final third and to force Arsenal wide. They’ll be confident their large defenders can cope with any crosses from there. Lincoln executed a similar approach with some success in the first half last weekend.

When the Gunners switch the play quickly, though, defenders have to scramble. Ramsey and Alexis should be ideally placed to exploit the resulting spaces, and Xhaka and Özil possess the skill and vision to find them.

Vision and implementation on that plane—rather than at the corporate level or on the level of the manager’s future—should be all anyone cares about.


Key Matchup


Mesut Özil against Claudio Yacob. Arsenal will have the bulk of possession in this match. The outcome will hinge on what the Gunners accomplish with that possession. Özil has seemed pedestrian in 2017 and needs to spark into form for the last 12 league matches. He’ll have to avoid the attentions of West Brom’s pesky Yacob to start that resurgence at the Hawthorns.

Where to Worry


No mystery here—set pieces. That’s West Brom’s main offensive threat. The Baggies have scored 17 of their 36 goals (47 percent) in dead-ball scenarios. Their 12 goals from corners are far and away the highest of any Premier League team. (Stats from Opta via Squawka.com)

Match Verdict


West Brom will make Arsenal labor, as always. Pulis’s defenses will be difficult to break down, but as Arsenal increase the tempo, West Brom will tire. A lapse in concentration will provide the opening, and Arsenal will rely on a clinical finish to carry the day.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. This seems like a perfect environment for Welbeck. He has the speed to run away from West Brom’s hulking defenders and the strength to take them on if necessary.

West Brom. Ben Foster. The only reason West Brom didn’t get swamped at the Emirates was Foster’s performance in goal. Another stellar outing from him would deepen Arsenal’s frustrations.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Match Preview, Arsenal v Bayern Munich: I Know You Rider

The sun will shine on my back door someday,
March wind will blow all my troubles away.


The American blues song “I Know You Rider” says a lot about Arsenal Football Club in advance of Tuesday’s Champions League match with Bayern Munich.

The number, performed by such groups as the Grateful Dead and Hot Tuna, deftly moves from despair to optimism.

In its opening verse, the storyteller predicts that the listener “gonna miss me when I’m gone.” It’s hard not to attribute that sentiment to the embattled Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. As has been analyzed on this site and elsewhere, the Frenchman is such an integral part of the club’s culture and structure that his absence will force a transformation.

The song’s verses unfold differently depending on the artist and the performance. By the time they close, they express a hopeful sentiment. That the cares, blues, troubles will, come some March, disappear.

We struggle to see that outcome for Arsenal now amidst the gloom of four defeats in six matches and the uncertainty clouding the futures of Wenger and his two stars Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil.

But the hope has to be there somewhere. Whether it lies in the club’s longer trajectory or in expectation of one match, the sane among us all possess some kind of hope. Otherwise, we would stop caring; we’d stop paying attention; we’d find other pastimes.

Masochism or even quest for validation—among those who are looking to prove they’re smarter and/or more committed than others—are sustainable for only so long.

And so to the matter of Bayern. In the binary operation of knockout competition, this is a meaningless encounter. The German giants destroyed the Gunners, 5-1, three weeks ago, and barring some supernatural intervention, Arsenal are not going to better that result and advance to the Champions League quarterfinal.

The way things look—Bayern having put eight goals past Hamburg at the weekend, Arsenal continuing to look rudderless in a 3-1 loss at Liverpool—a result similar to the first leg’s doesn’t seem far-fetched.

Yet we’ll pay attention.

Perhaps hints of something different will emerge. A revised tactical approach. Opportunities for different players. Focus. Professional pride.

Any of those changes to the dynamic will be interesting. They might also set the team up for better days ahead.

Like a trip to Wembley for an FA Cup semifinal. Saturday’s quarterfinal visit of non-league Lincoln City provides a legitimate chance at that outcome.

Or Premier League matches to come with Tottenham, Manchester City, and Manchester United. Make the most of all those occasions, and the Gunners tell a different, less tragic, story of the 2016-17 season.

Because all those conclusions remain possible, we press on.

Key Matchup


Arsenal’s players against their recent performances. The direction is negative; few would dispute that. Arresting that slide against one of the three or four most powerful teams in the world is a daunting task. But these are highly paid professionals who got where they are through talent and persistent motivation. Summoning those qualities against this opposition could be effective therapy.

Where to Worry


Could another absolute hiding make things worse? I don’t know.

Match Verdict


Even if manager Carlo Ancelotti changes his lineup, Bayern will dominate the ball. And win the tie. The major unknown is whether Arsenal will discover any answers to their recent troubles.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Aaron Ramsey. Can the Welshman get back into form quickly and help the Arsenal midfield function better? It’s a lot to ask, especially against this opposition. But the rest of Arsenal’s season might depend on it.

Bayern Munich. Franck Ribéry. Because if you have to watch one Bayern player, you might as well content yourself in the knowledge that Arsenal don’t employ someone this unattractive.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Arsène Wenger's Sweet Spot

Recent heavy losses to Chelsea and Bayern Munich have again prompted much talk of Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger’s shortcomings.

With Wenger’s contract due to expire in June and Arsenal’s chances of supremacy in the Premier League and Champions League scuppered, strident and influential voices are saying the club and manager should part ways. His failures are cause, they say, for termination.

Terms of the debate


As ever with arguments--especially over such binary functions as Wenger In/Out—there’s a risk of constructing straw men. Even so, I’d characterize the core contentions in these ways:

  • The manager is tactically naïve
  • He has displayed an inability to motivate today’s players for the big occasion
  • He indulges too many underperforming players
  • His footballing philosophy has proven inadequate
  • Events and results have unfolded in predictable fashion

Evidence exists to support each of these points. Except the final one, which is maddening to anyone like me who has limited time for entertainment and chooses to follow sport precisely because of its potential for the unexpected.

Despite the foundations of these arguments, I would like to suggest that they don’t fully reflect Arsenal’s current state of affairs under Wenger.

Expanding the perspective


We can conduct a fuller, more accurate examination by contrasting Wenger’s FA Cup record with his team’s performances over league campaigns.

Wenger is the most decorated modern FA Cup manager. In 19 tournaments, he has raised the trophy six times. With one more success, he will be the most successful FA Cup manager of all time, moving ahead of Aston Villa’s George Ramsay (1855-1935).

Longevity and a flow of excellent players have certainly played parts in Wenger’s record.

Just as important, though, has been his philosophy and approach. What Philippe Auclair has called the manager’s “jazz” style—a less structured system encouraging individual autonomy and expression—has the potential to merge stunning aesthetics and overwhelming victories.

That brilliance and beauty can be rare and fleeting, but when they coincide, we witness an extraordinary sporting accomplishment. The most recent example was Arsenal’s 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa in the 2015 FA Cup Final.

Another element of skill in knockout competitions is avoiding major upsets. In this, Wenger has unquestionably succeeded. Only once in his tenure have Arsenal lost to a lower-division team in the FA Cup. That 2013 defeat to Blackburn was a real low point.

The point here is that discrete, win-and-advance matches in which conditions are level or slightly favor Arsenal bring out the best in Wenger’s sides.

Points of contrast


In other, high-profile situations, the approach has been found wanting. The Champions League knockout stages are the most stinging recent example.
 
Wenger’s style doesn’t thrive one-on-one with Europe’s elites because conditions are rarely neutral. Whether it’s officiating, higher-pedigree and richer opposition, less-advantageous scheduling, or other factors, Arsenal find the going difficult at the business end of the Champions League.

His freeform philosophy can also be detrimental on the frequent occasions that tactical precision and structure carry European nights.

For 13 years, the ultimate achievement has eluded Wenger in the Premier League as well.

Each campaign, Arsenal start with an incredibly tight margin of error. It’s so narrow due to the strong correlation between financial outlay on transfer fees and wages and the final league finish. And let’s keep in mind that if the title is the only measure of satisfaction, 19 teams end up dissatisfied.

Over the scope of a 38-match season, Wenger’s philosophy has not produced a credible title challenge since at least 2008. Since the Invincibles of 2003-04, Arsenal have exceeded 80 points just twice. Historically, that is the bare minimum for contention.

This record suggests that Wenger’s approach isn’t enough to overcome Arsenal’s financial disadvantage relative to bigger spenders Chelsea, Manchester United, and Manchester City.

And yet, there’s a credible case that Wenger has exceeded the league performance we should expect given the club’s expenditures. To date, his teams have never finished lower than fourth place. In the past 10 years, no other club can make that claim.

What do you expect?


Expectations are, therefore, the issue. In many ways, Wenger is suffering from the standards he himself set, at least in league play. His three triumphant teams enjoyed structural and cultural advantages that more recent sides have not.

On the other hand, Wenger still has the philosophy and the players to achieve domestic cup greatness. That won’t arrive every year—the quest for beauty and brilliance on the day does risk irredeemable defeat. But isn’t it worth watching for the potential?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Match Report: Arsenal 1, Watford 2

Arsenal produced a performance to match the dismal London night, losing to Watford 2-1.

After racing past Southampton in the FA Cup on Saturday, the Gunners could not get out of the blocks on Tuesday night. It cost them dearly.

Within a quarter of an hour, Watford had a two-goal lead. The first came via an Aaron Ramsey deflection of Younes Kaboul’s free kick. Although the effort came from well outside the area, Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech could not adjust in time.

Just three minutes later, Ramsey was in another unfortunate place. The Welshman failed to control a Gabriel throw-in. Watford’s Etienne Capoue nicked the ball, juked Francis Coquelin and Shkodran Mustafi, and forced a pointblank save from Cech. Troy Deeney was there to poke home the rebound, and not for the first time this season, Arsenal faced a deficit against a team much lower in the table.

The response was tepid at best.

Arsenal strung passes together but failed to mount any threat on the Watford goal. Watford’s 4-1-4-1 formation packed the midfield and prevented the Gunners from moving from their own half into attack.

That showed in Arsenal’s passing statistics at halftime: Mustafi and central defensive partner Laurent Koscielny were the team’s top two passers of the first 45 minutes. In addition, the top passing combination, which for Arsenal often involves a midfielder and playmaker Mesut Özil, was Mustafi to Koscielny.

As the half went on, Watford actually looked more likely to get a third than the Gunners did to climb back into the match. Indeed, Cech had to come up with a save from Daryl Janmaat’s shot to keep the gap at two goals.

Overall, the Hornets had nine shots, six on target, in the first half, while Arsenal had none on target and only three total.

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, serving the second of his four-match ban in the stands, seemed to acknowledge his team’s ineffectiveness. Contrary to his norm, Wenger introduced Theo Walcott for Olivier Giroud at halftime, having already used one substitution to replace the injured Ramsey.

Walcott’s quickness did make a difference. He had two looks at goal in his first six minutes of action and forced Watford goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes into a decent save.

In the 58th minute, Arsenal’s pressure finally had an impact. Alexis Sanchez got past Watford left back Miguel Britos and found Alex Iwobi at the far post. Iwobi caressed the ball back across goal and in to halve the deficit.

The Gunners went on to dominate possession and opportunities. Watford were content to break up play, so Wenger and his pitchside colleagues Steve Bould and Neil Banfield discarded all caution. Coquelin came off to be replaced by Lucas Perez.

That left a central midfield of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi, neither with a long record of patrolling that area.

Perez joined the forward line and contributed to Arsenal’s intensifying efforts to breach Watford’s defense. The Spaniard’s shot off the bar late in normal time was as close as the Gunners came to equalizing.

Their 17 shots in the second half--but just three that tested Gomes after Iwobi’s goal—did not produce another comeback.

Things to ponder


Here are a few observations from this disappointing showing:
  • The substitutes did make Arsenal more dynamic. Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, and Lucas added quickness and intent to a heretofore plodding approach.
  • The pairing of Coquelin and Ramsey never got a grip on this encounter. They struggled in the packed midfield and offered little in transition to attack.
  • Indeed, questions will intensify about Arsenal’s midfield options. Ramsey’s exit after 20 minutes and the ongoing absences of Granit Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny leave the terrain to Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain. The latter did not look entirely comfortable after a second-half tackle.
  • Wenger faces another difficult decision in the forward areas. Although Giroud enjoyed very little service, he was largely ineffective when he did come near the ball. Will he retain his starting slot at the expense of the speedier Walcott, Perez, and Danny Welbeck?
  • What started as a hopeful week now looks ominous. Chelsea could not hold its lead against Liverpool, meaning a Gunners’ win would have brought them within six points of the league leaders. With a Stamford Bridge date on Saturday, the gap could have been just three. But Arsenal now face a nine-point disadvantage, and it’s hard to see Chelsea giving up that much ground.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Match Preview, Southampton v Arsenal: Modify the St. Mary's Mojo

Arsenal’s fourth-round FA Cup tie with Southampton provides an opportunity for the Gunners to change their fortunes at St. Mary’s.

Southampton’s home ground has been less than kind to Arsenal: The Gunners have not won there in 13 years and have just two wins in eight visits to the Saints’ home since 2001.

You might think karma doesn’t look great for Saturday’s trip, either. After all, Southampton approaches this matchup on a real high, having beaten Liverpool away on Wednesday to advance to the EFL Cup Final at Wembley.

The Saints produced an impressive display of defending and counterattacking at Anfield, a game plan that could trouble Arsenal as well. They also carry confidence that they can overcome the Gunners from their 2-0 win in the previous round of the EFL Cup.

However, this match could unfold in quite a different fashion. First of all, the midweek win at Liverpool came at a cost. Already suffering from multiple injuries, Southampton lost starting midfielder James Ward-Prowse to a chest injury and center forward Jay Rodriguez to an ankle problem.

That could be a symptom of another problem, a cramped schedule that will see the Saints play nine matches in the month of January. Arsenal will have played two fewer.

And while Southampton loses players to the treatment table, Arsenal enjoys returns from injury absences. Forward Danny Welbeck has eased his way back to match fitness with three substitute appearances this month, fullback Hector Bellerin is ready again after a second injury layoff, and forward Theo Walcott returns after almost six weeks out.

As a result, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has options and depth that Southampton manager Claude Puel doesn’t share.

Where Wenger’s choices are more restricted, though, is in central midfield. Only two first-team central midfielders, Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey, are available. With Granit Xhaka serving the first of a four-game suspension and Mohammed Elneny still at the Africa Cup of Nations for at least another week, Wenger will have to weigh the risks of sending out his last remaining charges in that area.

The risk appears heightened with two crucial Premier League encounters next week.

Mitigating that risk would mean tapping a young player for an important role. Wenger has identified Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, and Alex Iwobi, the eldest of that trio at 20, as his backup options.

One does wonder where this leaves Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has occasionally taken a more central role with some distinction. Perhaps more definitively as a wide attacking midfielder, where he’s enjoyed his most productive season since joining Arsenal from Southampton.

Will he get the nod there again over Welbeck, Lucas Perez, Iwobi, and Alexis Sanchez?

Whatever the selection in more forward areas, Arsenal’s players should have the quality to trouble the Southampton defense bereft of its early-season starting duo of José Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk. The former left the South Coast for West Ham, while the latter is one of the Saints’ many infirm.

The question, as ever with cup ties, is will the Arsenal team have enough cohesion and motivation to overcome a determined opponent on home turf. The Gunners did—just—in their third-round visit to Preston North End. The answer will need to be more definitive to modify their St. Mary’s mojo on Saturday.

Key Matchup


Shane Long against Arsenal’s central defenders. The Irishman, who scored the tie-clincher in Southampton’s 1-0 win on Wednesday, is a pesky opponent. He’s a master of the sly nudge. Long’s misses in the two teams’ league encounter kept the door open for Arsenal’s late victory, and whoever Wenger selects in defense will need to keep Long out of those threatening positions.

Where to Worry


With a relatively untested partnership in central midfield, Arsenal might struggle to establish any kind of flow. That’s a bigger concern in this match because Southampton is adept at disrupting the opposition’s progress in midfield. If Arsenal don’t reach quick understandings in midfield and elsewhere—as we’ve seen other mix-and-match lineups suffer from—the attack could really sputter.

Match Verdict


Another cagey, difficult affair could await. Southampton will try to compensate for fatigue and a depleted roster by keeping the Gunners at arm’s length. Arsenal will need to call on patience and persistence again.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. The England man gets his first start since last May. He’s come close to scoring in two of his three substitute appearances this month and has the speed and power to get away from Southampton’s makeshift back line.

Southampton. Oriol Romeu. Southampton’s defensive midfielder was the standout performer in his team’s semifinal clincher at Anfield. He seemed to know where Liverpool was heading before Liverpool’s players did. Similarly adept interceptions and tackles on Saturday will frustrate Arsenal.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Are Arsenal Prepared for Life after Wenger?

Earlier this week, the German publication Kicker published an interview with Arsenal playmaker and record signing Mesut Özil. In it, Özil stressed his readiness to sign a new contract with the club.

The only sticking point, he said, is the uncertain management situation. With manager Arsène Wenger’s own contract set to expire in June, one of the team’s star men has simply asked the club for an indication of who his boss will be if he commits his prime years to Arsenal.

“The club knows that I am here especially because of Wenger, who brought me, whose trust I enjoy,” Özil said. “The club also knows that I firstly would like clarity on what the manager is doing.” (See Arseblog’s full English transcript here)

In one sense, Özil’s declarations are reassuring: He seems content with his life and work and reluctant to jettison that for greater riches elsewhere.

On the other hand, his doubt is troubling. It suggests one of Arsenal’s greatest assets is as much in the dark about the manager’s position as the rest of us. A reasonable inference from Özil’s plea is that the club’s executives have not shared the outlines of a succession plan with him.

Given the discretion with which Arsenal conducts business, we shouldn’t be surprised that all the details haven’t emerged. We won't see a five-person managerial short list, for example.

But we don’t even have reassurances, a succession philosophy, or indications of a decision structure to hint that the club is prepared for the possibility of life after Wenger.

The outlines of a plan


Three years ago, we lived through a similar scenario. Until Arsenal secured the FA Cup that spring, Wenger’s future remained much in doubt.

The risks of that state of affairs did not disappear; they were only deferred. As a result, the observations I made in my October 2014 piece “Arsenal After Arsène” are still germane.

In particular, we should look at the steps Arsenal have taken to prepare for the managerial transition. Have the Board and club executives implemented practices that would produce an effective succession? According to executive recruiting experts David Larcker and Stephen Miles, organizations should, among other actions:
  • Add succession expertise to the board, particularly the search committee chair
  • Develop a robust succession architecture to cover needs from immediate emergencies to a five-year horizon
  • Use external advisors to assess candidates and work closely with the board
  • Prepare to shuffle the current management team if any members block the development or advancement of others
  • Expose promising internal candidates to the board

Although the club won't engage in all these activities in the open, we can expect the Board and Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis to reflect on these needs and to describe their preparations broadly.

Not only have Arsenal’s leaders failed to substantiate their thinking and actions on the matter, they have not answered the critical question—who is primarily responsible for the appointment.

Supporters, observers, and the media don’t know, despite the experience of 2014, who’s leading the club in this critical respect or how the leadership is approaching the decision. More troubling, the players don’t know.

The shortcomings of an insider Board


These developments, or lack thereof, do not inspire confidence that the Board has overcome its one obvious flaw. That’s the narrowness of experience and perspective of its members.

Six men. All white. Three grandees of the club. A father and son pair with no football background. And the CEO.

Even if we acknowledge that some members of this group have participated in bold, forward-thinking decisions in the past, the Board’s homogeneity and its implications are unavoidable.

First and foremost, the lack of breadth and diversity. A substantial body of organizational research indicates that the most effective decisions emerge from groups with a broad range of experiences and identities.

Not only do those perspectives bring new ideas, the very inclusion of difference sparks more careful decision making. (See “Better Decisions through Diversity” from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.)

As Katherine W. Phillips wrote in Scientific American in 2014, “Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table. Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior.” (“ How Diversity Makes Us Smarter”)

There have been no additions to the Arsenal Board since Wenger’s last contract renewal. No apparent changes of behavior, either.

As a result, the club doesn’t inspire confidence that it can make the optimal preparations for Wenger’s departure. 

The task that awaits

These preparations are vital to the club’s future because a monumental challenge faces the next manager.

During his 20-year tenure, Wenger has evolved into something of a Chief Football Officer. He’s an executive with both strategic and daily tactical responsibilities.

Both aspects weigh on him. He has said, for example, that he considers the financial well-being of all the current staff when he is making decisions about major outlays on new players.

“What matters to me is that when you have a club with 600 employees, you make sure you can pay everybody at the end of the month.”

That was his response to a question last August about Arsenal’s perceived hesitation in the transfer market.

In addition, very little seems to happen on the sporting side without Wenger’s okay. For an indication, read the engrossing account of 2014 loanee Kim Källström. Arsenal’s physicians diagnosed him with fractures in three vertebrae as he was on the verge of moving to North London.

After the medical assessment, Källström remembers, Wenger said:
’The transfer window shuts in a few hours. It’s impossible to find a replacement. Either I take you or no one.’ Surprised, the others turn to the big boss. No one knows how he’ll continue, but they know that his words are law. It’s evident that he has not anchored his decision among the rest of the staff. He decides. ‘You’ll stay, heal, and train. I’ll take you when you’re fit.’

When this one figure who has made so many decisions, the one to whom so many people have deferred, departs the scene, Arsenal faces a cultural and structural upheaval. Wenger’s replacement will have to coach the entire organization through that challenging transition.

Indeed, even taking into account a restructuring of Wenger’s responsibilities, the new manager will have to be comfortable with an executive’s perch.

Wenger described the evolution of his responsibilities at length in a conversation last March:
I remember I was manager at the top level [in 1983]. It was me, 20 players, and a part-time physio. Today, we are in 2016, I have a real team around me, a team of assistants, specialists of all kinds—statistical analysts, video analysts, scouting, physios, doctors, dieticians. So my job today has, of course, changed.
And I get so much information, that the problem of the modern manager is more to select the three, four [pieces of] information about the multitude he gets which are really significant.
Today you are much more in selection mode and decision mode.
Today you have other problems, to manage your own team of consultants … That creates human problems as well.

Here, Wenger is talking about his responsibilities in terms most executives would find familiar. He has to identify meaningful points amidst a flood of information and make important decisions on the basis of that selection.

Add explaining those decisions with equanimity to agenda-driven writers and broadcasters, demanding supporters, highly compensated players, colleagues within the club, and its leadership, and you have a colossal undertaking on an almost daily basis.

Given the magnitude of this work and its effects on Arsenal’s success, those in position of authority should be better prepared to handle life after Wenger than they seem to be.