It will be the biggest decision, the biggest challenge of Ivan Gazidis’s career: how to replace Arsène Wenger. If, after 21 years at Arsenal, Wenger steps down at the end of this season, it will be the chief executive who recommends his successor. And that is something he has never had to do before. Work is already under way, with Wenger’s knowledge, to consider who might be a potential candidate – after all, he has to leave at some stage. However, much of that has centred on the usual kind of future, hypothetical succession planning given there is a two-year contract on the table that the 67-year-old Frenchman might still sign; even if there is an understanding that it is best to wait until deeper into this season.
Gazidis and Arsenal, meanwhile, have been determining the criteria they want to fulfil and the structure which will be put in place at the club; things such as style of football, commitment to youth and a track record of success. All the easy stuff, in fact. Now the hard work might be about to begin; finding out who. They need to seriously look at names while balancing the risk of it leaking out. A personal view is that Arsenal should not leave it. They should decide soon whether Wenger is staying and make it public. It would allow a more dignified exit or show that they are determined to retain him. It ends the speculation, uncertainty and accusation of prevarication. Instead it appears hand-to-mouth, about mood and what happens in three months.
Speaking to people on Wednesday, however, there was a clear sense that Wenger might grasp the nettle and make a decision before the end of this campaign and – intriguingly – if he does leave Arsenal that he will continue working. A job as the coach of a national team is the most likely option. After a result like the 5-1 humiliation away to Bayern Munich in the Champions League clubs move into crisis mode. There is the holding position (no decision until end of the season). There is the attempt to take the heat out of the situation but, behind-the-scenes, it is the kind of watershed moment that will truly test the mettle of Gazidis and Arsenal’s owner Stan Kroenke.
The Arsenal executive do not want Wenger to go. Why would they? He has delivered continuity and a degree of comfortable success that has led to a smooth execution of a business plan. Arsenal is a simple business to run and the owner and directors have understandably surfed that. All the components are in place financially – beyond success on the pitch which, ultimately, is what it comes down to. At the same time, Wenger’s last contract was not a simple renewal. There was a clear understanding that Arsenal had to move from a period of sustaining their position in the top four of the Premier League, and with it Champions League qualification, into winning.
And Wenger is yet to deliver in the second phase, the second decade, of his managerial career at the club. Kroenke, who is influenced by his son Josh, a far keener football follower, has clearly indicated a desire to keep Wenger beyond the end of this season by describing, at the last annual general meeting, the club’s board as “very high” on their manager and admitting that he will be an extremely hard act to follow.
There is also the argument that Arsenal do not want to follow what has happened at Manchester United since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. But a change may also be liberating. Structurally Arsenal are in a better place than United. There are systems in place and also the suspicion that, as a natural consequence of being there so long, Wenger has held some people back. Arsenal are more geared to be a modern, progressive football club than United and that will also be Wenger’s legacy. But if he does go it will also be the making or the breaking of Kroenke’s ownership and Gazidis’s leadership.