Arsène Wenger, the Premier League and the Dearth of Elite Managerial Talent

The Premier League’s top clubs are in a strange place right now. With unprecedented amounts of money filling their coffers faster than they can re-route the cash to La Liga, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 in exchange for the continent’s best young talent, more English clubs than ever are attaining superpower status, and all of them expect much better than what they’ve produced this season.

Chelsea – the Premier League’s reigning champions, lest we forget – have endured a horrible campaign, defined by the toxic rift between former boss José Mourinho and his players and staff. Manchester United have lurched from one disaster to another under Louis Van Gaal, and the spectre of Mourinho looms large at Old Trafford. Manchester City have been stuck in second gear for the entire season, and Manuel Pellegrini’s departure at the campaign’s close has already been confirmed. Liverpool had an unbelievably tough list of fixtures at the start of the season, and those games did for Brendan Rodgers, who was swiftly replaced by Jürgen Klopp.

Arsenal, seemingly the only grandee unaffected by the madness that has enveloped their rivals, promptly collapsed in February, and suddenly Arsène Wenger is under as much pressure as ever. The Gunners, unlike all of their rivals, appear unlikely to dispense with their manager’s services. They will very probably be the only established power starting 2016-17 with the same man who led them into 2015-16.

Wenger would argue that this gives his team an obvious advantage. Continuity matters in football, he’d say. While the rest of his title rivals are starting from zero, he’ll have a settled and familiar core, a defined system, and players and staff who know what is required of them. Reform is more likely to produce desirable results than revolution.

That seems pretty logical, but if it were actually 100% true, Wenger would surely have won more Premier League titles in the last decade than Chelsea and Manchester City, who sack their managers and begin new cycles with rather alarming regularity. Sure, their managers have had much bigger budgets than Wenger, but if Arsenal’s professor really was benefiting so much from continuity, perhaps it would’ve offset the financial impact more than it has.

Ever since Mourinho called Wenger a “specialist in failure” back in February 2014, the tag has stuck, and not without reason. Wenger has met his main targets every season, consistently qualifying for the Champions League and doing so at a profit, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that those targets are pretty unambitious. As Arsenal fans are constantly reminding us, the resources exist for them to do so much more, and the flaws in Wenger’s playing style and transfer policy are glaringly obvious and relatively simple to fix.

At what point is Wenger held accountable for his team’s inability to win the biggest prizes, in the same way that the other teams’ coaches are? A reminder: Chelsea, Manchester United (probably), Manchester City and Liverpool will all start 2016-17 with new managers in their first full season at those clubs, entirely because the performance of the previous incumbents was not good enough. Arsenal will (probably) have similarly failed, and yet they’ll continue with the same guy. Why?

The biggest reason is that there are no obvious alternatives – and this isn’t a problem that only Arsenal face. One of the reasons Chelsea re-hired Mourinho was because they’d tried almost every other top-level manager that was available to them and none had come close to emulating his performance. When Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Man Utd found their hands tied: Mourinho was coming back to Chelsea, Pep Guardiola had just signed for Bayern, Carlo Ancelotti was joining Real Madrid, Klopp was firmly committed to Dortmund and Van Gaal to the Netherlands. By Ferguson’s own account, David Moyes became Man Utd manager pretty much by default.

Replacing an icon, then, is far from simple. Looking back at the potential Wenger replacements listed by various media outlets over the years – in addition to obvious nominations, Guardiola, Mourinho and Ancelotti – many of those who were apparently ready to take charge at Arsenal now seem questionable at best, and some would be categorically insane appointments: Moyes, Michael Laudrup, Roberto Martínez, Owen Coyle, Tony Adams, Thierry Henry… the list goes on and on and on. What looks like a good idea right now could in reality be an absolutely terrible one. All that glitters is not gold, and all that.

This is exacerbated by the fact that, in England at least, managers have very little in the way of time and opportunity – the pressure in their current jobs means developing the skills to move upward in their careers is damn near impossible, and one or two failures is enough to taint a reputation forever. Having done a good job with a Premier League team doesn’t mean anything, as the Manchester clubs’ experiences with Moyes and Mark Hughes seem to prove, or at least to strongly suggest. Chelsea, despite their regular chopping and changing, have never considered poaching a well-performing manager from another Premier League club.

The grandees almost always demand previous experience of managing clubs at their level, and most of their fans would not accept a manager had his experienced been gained working for one of their rivals. Brendan Rodgers is an excellent fit for Man Utd, for example, but his ties to Liverpool mean he’ll never get that job. Ditto Mauricio Pochettino and Arsenal: he’s a Spurs man now, and nothing will ever change that. Manuel Pellegrini has been heavily linked with Chelsea, but the Blues fans don’t want a “Manchester City reject”. You get one shot at a big job, and if you don’t make the most of it, that’s it: you’re done. Despite having won the title at Man City, Roberto Mancini’s reputation is similarly stained – he’s damaged goods.

All this means that, increasingly, the big clubs hire their managers from the same leagues that they buy their players from, and all of them do so based on the same criteria: the candidate must have managed one of the biggest clubs in the league; he must have won titles (plural, obviously) with that club; and he must have considerable European experience. Much as they do with players, they basically want readymade superstars.

It’s not the same elsewhere: Borussia Dortmund replaced Klopp with Thomas Tuchel, whose only previous experience was with relative minnows Augsburg and Mainz, because his ideas are exciting and he works well with his players; Napoli, widely seen as underachieving by not at least challenging for the Scudetto, hired journeyman Mauricio Sarri to replace Rafa Benítez; Barcelona chose Luis Enrique, chewed up and spat out by Roma, to steady the ship after the traumatic post-Pep churn. All three moves have been extremely successful, and none would have happened at any of the Premier League’s giants: their lack of fame and/or trophies on their CV bar them from consideration.

All of this brings us back to Arsène Wenger, Arsenal, and their future. Were the Gunners to punish failure to achieve success as their rivals do, Wenger would be gone this summer. Of course, they don’t, and despite everything he may well end up renewing his contract, if current reports are to be believed. Eventually, however, Arsenal will have to hire a new manager, and they’ll find themselves with the same problems that their rivals have now: the selection criteria are simply too rare to make them useful, and those managing other Premier League teams don’t develop the transferable skills to allow them to make the move up to the very highest level.

It’s a serious problem for all of them, but they’ll deal with it the same way they deal with all of their problems: by throwing more money at it and hoping it goes away. To some extent that will paper over the cracks on the pitch, but it’s not going to yield the same results in the dugout. If the hiring and firing of the present is to continue into the future, an unprecedented crop of managerial talent is going to have to spring up from somewhere to fill the void.

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About robbro7

I mostly write about football but occasionally go off on one about music or film too. I talk about Argentina a lot. If you have any questions or want to get in touch, tweet me @robbro7 or send an email to robbro7 [at] gmail [dot] com.
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