In days of old, the cigar smoke would have filled the oak-panelled room. The fate of the manager decided as the brandy slid down the throats of the local great and good. The decision on whether (or perhaps when is a better word) to replace David Moyes would not have been so convivial nor based on solely on footballing reasons. Manchester United is a business first and foremost; their board concerned with the implications for the brand as much as the squad.
That decision, according to reports this morning, was taken as long ago as February. There may be financial reasons for not acting then but the sums involved are trifling compared to the potential rewards of finishing in fourth place. As it is, United are fighting for the chance to play Europa League football, hoping Tottenham replicate their collapses of previous seasons when push comes to shove. That cannot be ruled out as United play three times at home in the same time Spurs play twice away, leading into the final Sunday of the season. Perhaps the Old Trafford board accepted that once Champions League football was beyond them, there was not much of an issue in not making European club football at all. After all, no midweek games offer plenty of opportunity for lucrative friendlies to be arranged to underpin the brand in the Middle East and Africa.
As quick as the speculation about Moyes’ future came so did the view that unless Arsenal acted swiftly, there will be a dearth of managerial talent available should they need to replace Arsène in the summer. That theory presumes the board have not already made their contingencies and acted upon them. After all, if the United directors can quell the speculation about their own manager’s future until now, it is not inconceivable that Arsenal can maintain silence about the club’s actions in a similar respect. Indeed, they have; there is not much speculation about Wenger’s future despite the surface appearance of uncertainty. I am sure that the board know of his decision. Whilst not a certainty, it would be surprising if a man who has invested so much of his working life in one club, would leave them hanging in the air over his future.
Perhaps he has set criteria for renewing his deal or the decision to leave in the summer is being kept quiet so that it does not distract the players from the task of a top four finish. Perhaps the thought is that the players will be boosted by a renewal or fired up to make the FA Cup final a swan song if the announcement is made in the week leading up to Wembley. I don’t know, very few outside of the board and manager do; it’s speculation, the fuel which fires football.
The ability of the board to find a replacement is openly questioned by some. What hope, the theory goes, have they of getting it right with the hash of transfer activity being made? How can they be trusted with the lack of footballing experience in the boardroom. To be honest, neither is relevant. After all, there is plenty of evidence from football’s history to suggest that knowing the professional game inside out, is the biggest bar to appointing a manager. Every club gets managerial appointments wrong at almost every turn. Howard Wilkinson astutely observed that there are two types of manager; those who have been sacked and those who waiting to be sacked. It captures the modern game but is equally apt for the previous century and a half of professional football.
Whatever the decision made is, United’s woes are far from being proof that a change in manager is not good for a club. Indeed, Arsenal would do well to appoint Arsène’s replacement by doing exactly the opposite of their former rivals. Don’t go for Wenger-lite, don’t let the manager appoint his successor. Moyes had few obvious credentials beyond being seen as a younger version of Ferguson. Having been managed in a certain style, United obviously felt that it would be less challenging to the club for this course of action to be followed. The logic is easy to see but in the case of Ferguson and Wenger, acolytes are not the answer. The infrastructure will survive but crucially Moyes biggest mistake seems to have been in replacing a huge swathe of key coaching personnel. Arsène, when he took over, recognised the importance of having a conduit to the players and the club’s history; Pat Rice filled that role admirably.
The world of Arsenal will change when Arsène Wenger leaves. That he will do so is inevitable, the brutal truth is that the question is only in the timing of that eventuality. We have to face facts and accept that the frequency of managerial change will increase at the club. Whether it will be a hire-and-fire mentality which takes over or continuation of the patience that has marked Arsenal differently to most of the rest of the professional game, remains to be seen. Bruce Rioch might rightly believe that the former is the Arsenal way given the shortness of his tenure but he and Don Howe were the exceptions to the rule. Arsenal have only had seven managers in the last half century. Compare that to the 23 who have sat in Chelsea’s hot seat over the same period or 19 at White Hart Lane. Those changes say as much about the clubs in question as they do about managerial ability.
But the key lesson from United’s woes is not the change itself. Fear of change is inertia and as damaging as change for change’s sake. My view is that this summer is the time for that to happen at Arsenal, others differ in their opinions. The board have made it clear they want Arsène to stay, the decision is his. Whatever you think, making a point politely and respectfully is incumbent upon us all.