The heated and never-ending discussion about Arsène Wenger’s future at Arsenal seems to reach new heights every year. After two consecutive seasons of sub-par results, even by rare optimistic fan’s standards, Arsenal seem to have lost more and more identity in their style of playing. And that was what us fans usually held onto when we under-performed, we might not be winning enough but we “played beautiful football”.
Arsenal used to play beautiful and entertaining football, although without being rewarded with trophies. Many fans demanded more cynicism to finally get hold of silverware, and to some extent Wenger complied. Arsenal became more cautious against top teams and gained more points in such matches than before as a result. However, this change in philosophy never finalised, and although we won some FA Cups and Community Shields, Arsenal are still in this phase. A phase where tactics seem to be set at “default” and players lacking guidance and motivation, or right-out under- performing. A place in the middle were we compete for cups, but not the top trophies.
Arsenal’s season and what’s important
Media in the UK seems confident that Wenger’s position will be critically reviewed (for the first time) at the end of the season. A season that is unlikely to conclude with a regained spot in the Champions League, which was the main mission this season.
It has so far ended with a disappointing performance in the FA Cup where we lost 4-2 to a better Nottingham Forest, a 3-0 League Cup final loss against a mediocre Manchester City performance, a so far casual effort through to the last of 16 in the Europa League (the only realistic shot at CL) and a declining season in the Premier League, sitting at sixth 10 points behind fourth place.
If these results were to pressure Wenger out of the club, if that is this summer or the next when his contract expires, who can and should replace him?
There’s understandably many candidates. Despite Arsenal recent form, the club is extremely desirable for just about any manager out there: Healthy finances, a patient board, state of the art facilities and stadium located in a desirable city (Alexis chose Arsenal not Liverpool…), a vast international fan base, plays in the most popular league in the world and an above average squad that with a new face and proper guidance would improve dramatically.
The most heavily reported candidates are Carlo Ancelotti (no club), Max Allegri (Juventus), Maurizio Sarri (Napoli), Joachim Löw (Germany), Leonardo Jardim (Monaco), Brendan Rodgers (Celtic), Diego Simeone (Ateltico) and Luis Enrique (no club). But rumours of underdogs Mikel Arteta (Man City co-assistant) and Thierry Henry (Belgium assistant coach) have emerged as well.
Efficient tactics have become increasingly paramount in football in the last ten years, and that is the number one criteria the Arsenal board should consider when the day comes.
Perhaps the biggest consequence to why tactics have become so important is that weaker teams spend substantially more time analysising the better teams, which means they become more difficult to beat and the top teams need strategies that are more effective against them. But also against other top teams, especially when their managers are tactical expert like Guardiola, Mourinho and Conte.
Here a my top five choices in order and why:
Who won nine out of a possible 13 trophies in three years at Barcelona is my favourite. He’s young for a manager with the success he’s experienced and played a type of football at Camp Nou that share some of the characteristics of peak Wenger, only more extreme.
Enrique utilises the full size of the pitch, spreading out the players when in possession (similar to Guardiola’s City), in a controlled but direct manner. It is very effective and usually unpredictable which means pace and creativity is key, something Arsenal have. With Enrique in charge we wouldn’t see much of the typical ineffective Wenger-attack: quickly pass the ball up the pitch and move everyone up before it all stops when the opposition organises deep in their half and the attack ends in a clearance after two minutes in possession.
Enrique would keep the ball within their six most defensive players before bursting in attack with constant forward runs and few horizontal passes, while moving everyone up the pitch when the opportunity occurs. And then reset in a more conservative system without the ball.
Enrique is a super-tactician, something Wenger very much isn’t. He would bring fresh ideas to Arsenal, which is needed. This could see an improvement in players such as Xhaka, Iwobi and Mustafi, who scream for more guidance.
It is a more efficient way of playing attacking football and would compliment a lot of the players currently in the squad, which is mostly attack- minded, especially, Özil, Wilshere, Mkhitaryan, Monreal, Bellerin, and Lacazette and Aubemyang up top.
Jardim, much like Wenger, found success in developing younger players. He is responsible for giving Mbappé (now at PSG) enough time to blossom into a world beater. Jardim transformed a mediocre Monaco into a team full of desirable players. He severely improved the team’s play and got the best out of its players, among others, Bakayoko (now at Chelsea), Mendy (now at City), B. Silva (now at City), Sidibe (rumoured everywhere), Fabinho (rumoured everywhere) and Lemar (rumoured everywhere including Arsenal).
Jardim plays a very direct and attacking 4-4-2 system. Every player, except for the centre-backs, have a significant role in attack. The full-backs are important going forward, as they become wide wingers in attack, while the traditional wingers position themselves more toward the centre. This way they often finish the attacks from wider areas.
If he has the right players it ends in devastation for the other teams. Monaco scored 107 goals in Ligue 1 when they won it last year. And although they sold a heap of key players last summer, they are currently scoring 2,48 goals per league game. Arsenal are scoring 1,89 goals per league game after equally many matches and buying a prolific goalscorer in Lacazette before the season started.
Jardim’s system puts emphasis on attacking full-backs, creative attacking midfielders and strikers who can finish.
Monreal and Bellerin could succeed in this system with guidance. Özil, Wilshere, Ramsey and Mkhitaryan would easily suffice, and Lacazette and Aubemyang are more than good enough in front of goal.
With all the changes in our staff the last months, Sarri would make sense as a replacement.
Sarri hates being involved in transfers and has said, “I am a coach. Give me a group of players and I will coach them.”
Arsenal have brought in Sven Mislintat as a new Head of Recruitment and Raul Sanllehi in a new position called Head of Football Relations (which could have the same effects as a Director of Football). It seems Ivan Gazidis and Arsenal are delegating Wenger’s responsibilities, especially concerning transfers, which would please Sarri.
Sarri is an unapologetic and intense character, but more importantly has proven his abilities as a tactical mind. Napoli is one of the most entertaining and dominant sides in Europe this season and currently leading Serie A, despite selling Higuain before the season started and without his replacement Milik out with a long- term injury.
Sarri’s Napoli plays an exhaustive 4-3-3 team play strategy. The ball in constantly moving and their press without the ball in reminiscent of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, moving the entire team far up the pitch. This system requires great technical abilities, which most of the Arsenal squad possesses, and if successful would see Arsenal play a beautiful game again.
However, there are concerns surrounding the current Arsenal squad. Sarri demands extremely hard-working players. And centre-backs that can be relied upon with the ball in difficult situations, something every Arsenal centre- back would struggle with.
Simone is the opposite of Wenger. He demands discipline and plays a conservative and often counter-attacking motivated system, opposed to Wenger’s free and possession styled play.
He can also motivate, which has become perhaps the biggest issue at Arsenal. It’s rare to see a lackluster Atletico side, no matter the opposition. Atletico, despite far less financial power and resources than the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and other european behemoths, often perform very well against top teams. Arsenal’s situation isn’t far from that, in that the Manchester clubs are miles ahead in the same regard.
Simeone took charge at Atletico in 2011 and in that year he won the Europa League and later beat Chelsea 4-1 in the European Super Cup. He has also beat Real and Barcelona to the league and was the runner-up in the Champions League twice in three years.
Although he plays a defensive and narrow 4-4-2 formation, he always focuses on winning. Difficult to beat by anyone. It’s a conservative way of playing and the defensive line is pulled far back, but the pressing is aggressive from start to finish and it often is very entertaining.
Downside is that the attackers have to be efficient in front of goal to win. But this system would complement every one of our defenders, as they have less responsibilities with the ball. It would also suit Ramsey, Elneny and Wilshere’s work ethics, Özil’s creativity and Aubameyang’s pace. He might even play Lacazette and Aubameyang together.
Arteta is a risk. It very much depends on how much he has learned from Guardiola at City and if he can implement his game plan and methods onto the pitch.
There’s no evidence to his managerial abilities, but Arteta was a very intelligent player. A serious person and a leader on and off the pitch. He’s also exciting in that he is young and to truly succeed as a manager nowadays fresh ideas are vital.
Arteta has experienced the Premier League first hand for 11 years as a player (five at Arsenal) and is now witnessing the game from the outside, alongside Guardiola, arguably the smartest manager in recent times. Guardiola has praised Arteta several times, and attributed Sterling’s steep improvement this season to his guidance.
Again, Arteta is a risk. But a risk worth considering. Guardiola was a risk for Barcelona. Maybe the summer of 2019 is a more appropriate time for him to take over Arsenal.
The common denominator for all these candidates is that they all play with a clear identity, a collective goal, that Arsenal need. They have all proven (except Arteta) that they can implement their strategy onto the pitch effectively, and they have all enjoyed success with their methods recently.
Additionally, a new face to look up to would put the players on their toes, as none of them have impressed anyone for a while.