December 1 2018 / Spear's Magazine
Arsene Wenger, the tall, sophisticated, cerebral Alsatian who left Arsenal at the end of last season after nearly 22 years at the club, was surely the last coach-as-supreme-controller of one of the world’s great football clubs. “Arsene knows” was an adage of the fans during Wenger’s remarkable first decade in London, when he swept all before him, transforming one of England’s most venerable sporting institutions into a cosmopolitan mega-club with a global fan base, a multinational squad of players, a new 60-000 all-seater stadium, and an operating revenue of $531 million and a market value of $2.238 billion.
Wenger was always more than a coach: he was a polyglot visionary whose pioneering use of sports science and data analysis gave him a competitive advantage when he arrived as an unknown in London from Japan in 1996.
But Wenger’s final seasons at the club were characterised by stagnation and supporter apathy as a new generation of innovators – Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino – arrived in the Premier League to expose the Frenchman’s stubbornness and limitations. The mood at the Emirates Stadium soured: many of the fans wanted Wenger out and it was painful to watch this proud and dignified man flounder.
Any successful business needs a continual injection of new ideas and management talent if it is to avoid structural decline. Complacency is the enemy of innovation. And Wenger surrounded himself with the same group of loyalists who served as mere echo chambers to his gnomic pronouncements about values and togetherness. But as the Financial Times writer Simon Kuper smartly put it, Wenger shows you cannot be an innovator twice.
With the departure of Wenger – who was not sacked exactly but eased on his way by a restive board of directors – Arsenal transformed its leadership team. Sven Mislintat, a renowned talent-spotter who worked under Klopp at Borussia Dortmund, arrived as head of recruitment. He was joined by Raul Sanllehi, formerly of Barcelona, who became head of football. When in November Ivan Gazidis surprisingly departed as chief executive for a new challenge at AC Milan, Vinai Venkatesham, formerly chief commercial officer, became managing director.
Most important of all, Arsenal appointed Unai Emery as head coach. His role is much more limited than the all-seeing, all-knowing, benignly autocratic Wenger’s had been. Before coming to London Emery spent two seasons as coach of Paris Saint-Germain, owned by Qatar Sports Investment and thus astoundingly rich. It’s a club where superstar players such as Neymar have more power than the coach and the Qatari owners will spend whatever it takes to win the Champions league (which has eluded them so far). Before joining PSG, Emery had a successful period in charge of Seville, winning the Europa League three times in a row.
Emery, who is Basque, is celebrated for his obsessive attention to detail and for the high-energy pressing game he demands of his teams. The Arsenal job is one of the most desirable in world football and he arrived for his interview in the summer fully prepared. He knew every player in the squad: about their playing history, injury record and present prospects. He knew what had gone wrong and what needed to be done.
I sit just above the home dug-out at the Emirates and to watch Emery in action during a match is to watch a fanatic. He never sits down but stands in his technical area, sometimes outside it, manically directing play like a demented traffic warden, and pausing only fleetingly to issue instructions during a break in play or to confer with one of his coaches.
The players are responding to his methods, which include intensive video analysis, and there is a new intensity to Arsenal’s game. And the usually soporific home crowd is stirring: they sense and like the change.
I was never one of the “Wenger Out” faction. I admired his cool intelligence, his articulacy and understated sense of humour. But he stayed too long. It’s always hard, when you’ve enjoyed sustained success at a company or institution, to know when to let go, to clear the way for someone else.
Arsenal are not a sacking club. Nor are they profligate in the transfer market. The club’s majority shareholder is Stan Kroenke, an American sports magnate – “silent Stan” the fans call him, because of his long absences from London and magisterial reserve.
In August, it was announced that Kroenke would take full ownership of Arsenal after the Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov agreed to sell his 30 per cent stake to Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, which already owned 67 per cent of the club. This enabled Kroenke to mount a mandatory bid for the remaining shares that were held privately, mostly by the fans who will receive close to £30,000 for each share.
As a shareholder, I was irritated by the deal which will end the ritual of the club directors being challenged at the annual general meeting by fans. But we have entered a new era in every sense. We miss Arsene: but this is Emery’s Arsenal now.