Evidently, Arsène Wenger does not need excessively complain. Wenger has not by any means held a question and answer session before what Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal’s CEO, guaranteed half a month back would be a “send-off the world will pay heed to”. By one means or another, I ponder whether Gazidis was getting a little diverted.
Arsenal have not even decided yet if they want a statue of Wenger when, frankly, one should have been announced on the day the abdication was announced. They will give away 60,000 “Merci Arsène” T-shirts but nobody should expect a helicopter to whizz Wenger away, à la Kevin Keegan at Newcastle in 1984, or the crowd to genuflect in his direction. Wenger, sad as it is, just doesn’t inspire that kind of worship. Not any more, anyway.
If that sounds a little downbeat on the day he says adieu to the Emirates, perhaps it is a legacy of being there for the game against West Ham, two days after the news that Wenger was being cut free, and the unshakeable feeling on that occasion that it was not going to be an easy separation. Arsenal’s supporters did not have the energy for a love-in and, overall, it was a rather sad business. It was blandness the crowd feared the most, not saying goodbye. Anyone expecting to see petals thrown at Wenger’s feet was badly mistaken.
Today should be a more poignant occasion, with the great and good of the Wenger era added to the guest list for the game against Burnley, a guard of honour and all sorts of choreographed tributes. Equally, it already feels like a long, complicated goodbye and, unfortunately for Wenger, nothing can sugarcoat the fact that his final season at Arsenal has been a dismal one, or that Gazidis should now think very carefully about his strategy for choosing the next man.
First and foremost, presumably Arsenal are aware that a man who has won the Champions League on three different occasions is available? Do they recall that the man in question, Carlo Ancelotti, won the Premier League and FA Cup Double in his first season in English football? Have they been made aware that he is eager, to say the least, to return to the industry in which his collection of trophies and individual awards could fill an aircraft hangar?
The questions feel relevant because it seems strange to me that Ancelotti – at 58, 10 years younger than Wenger – is not attracting more attention. Have Arsenal checked his CV recently? And, if so, are they really in any position to pass up someone of the Italian’s class and achievement?
At least if they prefer Luis Enrique’s credentials a reasonable argument can be made that they have chosen somebody else who knows what it takes to win at the highest level. It was Pep Guardiola who made Barcelona great. Yet Luis Enrique made them even better in that season, 2014-15, when he won the treble with a front line of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar. His record is not so hot elsewhere but it should be obvious why he is occupying Arsenal’s thoughts.
At the same time, Ancelotti has outdone Guardiola, Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho, Ottmar Hitzfeld, Arrigo Sacchi and everybody bar Bob Paisley when it comes to European Cup triumphs. He has won major trophies in England, Italy, France, Spain and Germany, including league championships in four of those countries. He lives in London, as well as having properties in Milan and Vancouver. His Canadian wife, Mariann, is another Londonphile and the fact his last spell of work in England ended with the sack probably says more about Chelsea than it does him.
Just consider the story Ancelotti tells of being summoned to Roman Abramovich’s house after a game against West Brom to be informed that the performance was not good enough. It was the first day of the new season and, in fairness to Ancelotti, Chelsea had just won the first Premier League and FA Cup Double of their history. Yet Abramovich wasn’t happy and Ancelotti was given a dressing‑down. Chelsea, for the record, had won 6-0.
Ancelotti was fired at the end of that season for the heinous crime of finishing second and, against that kind of backdrop, it comes as a slight surprise to learn he would be tempted to put his head back in the noose and work for Abramovich again if, as is widely assumed, Antonio Conte leaves Stamford Bridge. Arsenal, in other words, might need to get their skates on.
For the time being, however, it isn’t easy to know if they find the idea particularly attractive and, judging by some of the reports coming out of the Emirates, it may be that they will prefer to go in another direction anyway. Arsenal, we are told, are exploring a range of “younger head coach-style options” and want to be bold in their thinking, as they were in 1996 with the man London’s Evening Standard famously introduced as “Arsène Who?”
Fair enough, in an ideal world. But is this really a job for someone at the start of their managerial career? Wenger does not just run the first team at Arsenal, he has an input in everything, right down to choosing the boutonnières for Wembley appearances and arranging the staff’s fuel cards. Whoever replaces him will be inheriting a club about to finish with the fewest points of his 22 years in charge, as well as their lowest league position, and having just posted their worst sequence of away results since 1966. This is a big, scary job. It needs someone with the kind of bone‑deep composure that is born to only a few men and, if Arsenal want to be bold, surely it makes sense to go for the candidate with the superior credentials.
It is certainly perplexing that Mikel Arteta, for instance, is being mentioned more prominently, other than the fact English football is always a sucker for a sentimental choice. Arteta once played for Arsenal and now has a background role at Manchester City (though it’s Guardiola who takes the coaching). Is that really enough to take the leap into managing a club of Arsenal’s size? Would his name even be on the betting-shop chalkboards if he didn’t have an Arsenal past?
Similar questions can be applied to Patrick Vieira. The link with Zeljko Buvac, Liverpool’s estranged coach, is another bewildering one and Mourinho even popped up in the last few days to give oxygen to the view that his assistant, Rui Faria, might be a serious candidate, calling his assistant “a good fit”. Well, it’s an idea. But seriously, can an argument be made that any of these have a superior case than a man with Ancelotti’s durable competence?
The only argument I have heard against Ancelotti is that he prefers to inherit a ready‑made team rather than one needing restoration work. Well, which manager doesn’t? In truth, Ancelotti has improved virtually all his teams, starting with Reggiana’s promotion and Parma’s highest-ever Serie A finish even before the years when he built his reputation as a trophy machine.
He is not the only candidate with impressive credentials – Massimiliano Allegri and Conte, to name but two, would surely have the coaching knowhow to improve the late-Wenger Arsenal – and nobody is asking Gazidis to operate with a closed mind if he is absolutely convinced that, say, Julian Nagelsmann, the 30-year‑old manager of Hoffenheim, is the outstanding option.
Alternatively, Arsenal cannot afford to get this one wrong. It would set them back years and that would feel even more reckless if, in the process, they have passed up someone who has already demonstrated, over nearly a quarter of a century, that he is the real deal.