How do you replace an Arsenal legend?

Opinion

The past few seasons has seen several “Wenger Out” campaigns among the Arsenal fans and the media, but the speculation over Wenger’s future has reached a new level in recent weeks. Arsenal’s dismal showings at Chelsea and Bayern Munich have certainly not helped Wenger’s case for a new contract and even has some demanding that the Frenchman get the sack.

Currently in his 21st season at the club, Arsène Wenger has become a symbol of Arsenal Football Club, an undisputed legend. Since arriving in 1996, Wenger’s teams have won the Premier League three times and the FA Cup six times, all while playing expansive, attacking football. Wenger’s success forever changed the way football is played in England. Despite this incredible success, the feeling of many is that it has all gone a bit stale at Arsenal in recent years. Following the Invincible season in 2003-04, Wenger has won just three FA Cups since.

It is rare for a manager to have such a long and prolific spell with a club. How does a club move on from a someone who has become almost synonymous with the club? I look at some past examples and see how Arsenal can replace Wenger without sacrificing the Champions League or entertaining football.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s exit from Manchester United in 2013 ended one of the greatest managerial spells in the history of football. Manchester United decided to appoint a (seemingly at the time) ‘like-for-like’ replacement in David Moyes (on a six-year contract!). Handpicked by Ferguson, Moyes, a fellow Scot, had over 10 years’ experience in the Premier League but had not won anything in his time at Everton. As we all know, this did not pay off for the club and Moyes was sacked before the end of his first season. Following the 2014 World Cup, Dutch manager Louis van Gaal seemed to be as safe a pair of hands as there was to take on the job. Van Gaal had previous experience of success at huge clubs. The board were confident he could handle the high expectations of the job at Old Trafford. Two years of mediocre results and drab football followed before José Mourinho was brought in after being sacked by Chelsea.

This is the fourth season since Sir Alex won the title in his final season. During this time, four different managers (including Ryan Giggs) have managed the club, they have spent over €600 million and crucially have not qualified even for the Champions League in any season since Ferguson retired.

Older examples in English football include the plight of Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town after the departures of Brian Clough and Bobby Robson. Both took the club to heights that haven’t come close to being matched since. While it is unlikely a club the size of Arsenal drops as drastically as Forest or Ipswich, the plight of these clubs should serve as a warning as to what can happen if enough incorrect decisions are made.

In Wenger’s native France, the departure of the legendary Guy Roux swiftly led to Auxerre’s demise. During the over 40 years of Roux’s reign, Auxerre went from an amateur side competing in the lower leagues to Ligue 1 champions, renowned for producing some of the world’s finest players including Eric Cantona. After Roux’s exit in 2005, Auxerre has had eight managers and are currently languishing in 17th in Ligue 2.

The conclusion is, it is very difficult to replace someone who has been so important for so many years. The next manager is very rarely the one to either keep up the success or improve on the success of the previous manager.

Bruce Rioch failed to replace George Graham before Wenger took over in 1996 and it seems unlikely that the next Arsenal manager will be able to properly succeed Wenger. The trick will be to keep Arsenal challenging near the top, getting into the Champions League while they find the correct long-term solution.

As speculation for Arsène Wenger’s successor swirls the club has a decision to make. Replace Wenger with a younger, promising manager like Eddie Howe, Thomas Tuchel or Leonardo Jardim. Choose an experienced, “star” manager, maybe Max Allegri. Keep Wenger in charge for a few more years and wait for different candidates to become available. Another option could even be to move Wenger into a Director of Football type role and allow him to help and advise his successor.

Whichever path the Arsenal board decides; a period of transition is inevitable. Patience will be needed while Arsenal attempts to return to the top of the English game.

I have a feeling that Wenger’s almost notorious record of finishing in the top four every year may be missed if Arsenal fails to qualify for the Champions League in the years following Wenger.

Regardless of who replaces him, I hope Arsène Wenger goes out on a high at Arsenal and is celebrated for what he is, a truly fantastic manager.