It’s that time again for Arsenal: Arsene Wenger’s contract expires at the end of the campaign, and there’s the usual speculation about whether or not he’ll sign a new contract. At this point, it seems probable he will stay.
The closest Wenger has come to leaving Arsenal was seemingly in 2014, when he delayed a decision about his future until after the Gunners’ 3-2 extra-time FA Cup final victory over Hull City. Some sources close to Arsenal believe Wenger would have walked away had Arsenal been defeated, and in the immediate aftermath of the victory the manager appeared more emotional than at any other point during his 20-year career in English football — almost disorientated as he navigated his way around Wembley Stadium. In post-match interviews, though, he confirmed his desire to continue.
Had Wenger decided to resign, however, Arsenal would have had options. 2014 was a relatively fluid summer for top-level managers changing jobs, partly because the summer of international tournaments generally sees a lot of coaches on the move. Today, there are fewer genuinely viable candidates.
Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe is, according to the bookmakers, the nailed-on favourite, with Joachim Low, Roberto Mancini, Ronald Koeman, Dennis Bergkamp, Diego Simeone and Frank de Boer also in the mix.
None appear particularly likely. Howe has performed impressively at Bournemouth but Arsenal would be a huge step up, while Low hasn’t coached a club side for well over a decade and wasn’t particularly successful when he did. Mancini and Simeone don’t seem stylistically right for the job, and Bergkamp has never coached a first team before. Koeman and De Boer appear more likely, but Arsenal might be looking to appoint someone who has demonstrated outright success in a major league.
As it stands, there seem to be fewer serious candidates than at any stage over the past five years. To assess that judgement, it’s worth taking a look at historic bookmakers’ odds to replace Wenger.
Here’s the state of play at four (admittedly irregular) intervals over the past half-decade, outlining the seven favourites to be the next Arsenal manager.
October 2011: Guus Hiddink, Remi Garde, David Moyes, Pep Guardiola, Dragan Stojkovic, Owen Coyle, Jose Mourinho.
May 2013: Michael Laudrup, Stojkovic, Bergkamp, Jurgen Klopp, Manuel Pellegrini, Garde, Steve Bould.
April 2014: Klopp, Bergkamp, Bould, Mauricio Pochettino, Stojkovic, Martinez, De Boer.
November 2014: Klopp, Paul Clement, Martinez, Koeman, Bergkamp, Simeone, Guardiola.
These names can be broken down into five categories:
Significantly, it’s notable that Guardiola, Mourinho, Klopp and Pochettino were all once apparently well-placed to succeed Wenger. At the time, these seemed like decent options (even if Mourinho was always unlikely), but each is now managing a rival side in a roughly similar position to Arsenal. They are, inevitably, hugely unlikely to take charge at the Emirates.
There’s a group of names that would be unthinkable appointments now because of struggles elsewhere: Garde, Moyes, Coyle, Laudrup, Martinez and Clement were once considered the next big things, but are now trying to revive their careers.
The short-term appointments
Hiddink, Pellegrini and Mancini have all enjoyed great successes during their managerial careers, but probably lack the vision to take Arsenal forward. They don’t seem like long-term options.
A fourth group comprises two Arsenal fan favourites who have no experience with managing first-team sides, Bould and Bergkamp. Stojkovic, while a great friend of Wenger, has never coached outside of Asia and appointing him would be an even greater risk than appointing Wenger was two decades ago.
That leaves only three names, all featured earlier in the list of current favourites: De Boer, Simeone and Koeman.
The purpose of this exercise, of course, is to demonstrate precisely how quickly things change in football. Performing reasonably well with a small club in the Premier League is not necessarily conducive to long-term success with a title contender. Howe, while unquestionably an extremely promising young manager who has worked wonders with Bournemouth, is in a similar position to Coyle, Martinez and Laudrup a few seasons ago. What might have appeared a forward-thinking, brave appointment then could have backfired spectacularly, although Pochettino was roughly in that mould back in 2014 when still at Southampton and has proved very successful with Tottenham.
At this point, Arsenal appear to have fewer obvious candidates for the job than almost ever before, should Wenger decide to leave this season. The inevitable solution would be simple: Wenger signing a new contract.
The Frenchman has been typically coy about his chances of remaining in position after next summer. He’s third-favourite for the England job behind current caretaker manager Gareth Southgate and RB Leipzig sporting director Ralf Rangnick, supposedly a favourite of the Football Association.
In terms of his Arsenal future, the ball is in Wenger’s court. He has repeatedly said that he won’t have any input in choosing his successor, perhaps observing the difficulties Sir Alex Ferguson encountered when selecting Moyes. “I have told you many times, it is not my job to show, to choose who will follow me after, when I leave one day,” he said two years ago.
But Wenger is the most astute legacy-builder in modern football. No other coach has placed such a great emphasis on long-term thinking. He clearly has Arsenal’s best interests in mind, and it’s difficult to imagine his decision-making would be identical in this situation, with a huge question mark about a potential successor, compared to if he had a Bob Paisley character waiting in the wings, ready to take charge immediately and continue his philosophy having experienced the club from within.
These things tend to be cyclical, and it just so happens that many of Europe’s most revered managers have recently started work at major clubs with plenty of unfinished business. In a couple of years they might become available, and by then there will be another new generation of coaches ready to step up.
Until then, however, Arsenal don’t have much to choose from. A few years ago, the “Wenger Out” brigade could have pointed to Guardiola or Klopp as potential successors. Now, perhaps more will be convinced that Wenger should remain in place.