Throughout their history, Arsenal have had to take decisions in order to speed up the evolution of the club. This is true of every big football club, or indeed organisation. They’re pretty simple to plot when you pore over the Gunners’ illustrious timeline. In 1913, Henry Norris decided to transplant the club from its suburban Kent womb and into the big smoke of Islington.
Herbert Chapman took several decisions- both tactical and structural- which turned the club into England’s foremost football club in the 1930s. Following Chapman’s death in 1934, the club understandably opted for stability, with Allison and Whittaker continuing Herbert’s legacy. When the workload virtually killed Tom Whittaker, some of the players from that glorious period- Jack Crayston and George Swindin- were hired in a desperate attempt to keep the 1930s flame alive.
Both underwhelmed. The Arsenal board tried to go in a new direction with Billy Wright. But by all accounts, he was far too nice a man for the post. So Arsenal took the unusual measure of appointing their physiotherapist as manager. Bertie Mee was renowned as a strict disciplinarian, ruling the treatment room with an iron fist. The club decided that this sort of sergeant major approach was required to harness the talents of a talented, yet unmotivated squad.
To allay for his lack of technical knowledge he was teamed up firstly with Dave Sexton and then Don Howe. It was a leftfield move that proved to be a masterstroke. But the short, sharp shock of Mee eventually wore off and Arsenal again drifted for another fairly aimless decade from the mid-70s until the mid-80s. The Gunners had gone full circle back to the mid-60s. A talented squad had been assembled by Terry Neill and Don Howe, but the players lacked the motivation to achieve their potential.
So in came George Graham to sweep a new broom through a club lacking direction to instil some much needed discipline. George was exactly what the club required at the time and on this occasion, the decision to hark back to the more prosperous past paid dividends. Graham reconnected the club with some of the iron fisted principles of Bertie Mee, whom he had played under with such distinction.
But Graham’s unyielding style lost impact with the players, just as his guardian angel Bertie Mee’s had before him. Bruce Rioch’s father was a sergeant major in the Scot’s Guards, his abbreviated spell continued Graham’s militaristic schtick. But it was clear that Arsenal needed new ideas, with many of the squad Rioch inherited approaching the ten year mark at Arsenal. The appointment of Arsene Wenger from Grampus Eight proved to be the bold, unorthodox move that the club needed to shake it from its entropy.
Wenger was a more avuncular, artisan figure and the squad immediately responded to the freshness of his methods. Arguably, Arsene kept his reign fresh with the move to the Emirates Stadium in 2006. It certainly divides his tenure into two neat series. The move was Arsenal’s leap onto the ‘European super club’ lillypad. It’s my opinion that Wenger was close to the ideal manager to guide the club through that transition.
However, since the economic restrictions greatly reduced in 2013, it feels as though Arsenal have reached the point where they are again in need of new ideas to reinvigorate the playing side of the club. Arsene’s laissez-faire approach to tactics does have benefits, as difficult as it is to say in the current climate. But it looks as though the players just aren’t responding to the manager’s instructions with much vim and vigour.
From the outside, they appear to require structure- they may even crave it. With coaches like Guardiola, Pochettino, Simeone, Sampaoli and Conte seemingly micro-managing the game’s finer details, Arsenal’s players often look listless and lost. The Graham / Mee disciplinarian type struggles to scan in the modern game. However, the type of discipline they need not necessarily be achieved with pristine club blazers, immaculately Brylcreemed hair or upright posture.
This Arsenal squad hardly strikes you as a throng of scallywags. It is on the pitch where they need greater tactical discipline and instruction and that is probably going to require a manager able to administer it. Arsenal requires a loose modern equivalent to the appointments of Chapman, Mee, Graham and Wenger himself. Alas, Arsene has transitioned from the dashing d’Artagnan, swinging the sword of revolution through the marble halls, to the safe, conservative face of Arsenal.
It has been eleven years since the Emirates Stadium opened its doors for the first time. Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur are about to open new stadia themselves. “Keeping up with the Jones’s” is not a sensible way to run a football club and the suggestion is not to indulge in some kind of PR arms race with our geographical neighbours. But the Emirates is losing its ‘out of the cellophane’ smell. The stadium is fast becoming part of the furniture, as it were.
To point to it as evidence of the club’s concession to modernity is becoming an increasingly dated outlook. In the meantime, it feels like less resourced clubs on the continent, such as Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid, are overtaking Arsenal through smart, modern management arrangements. Both are able to stem the bleeding of player exits with refined scouting and transfer structures.
From 1996 until 2013, I think the club have done phenomenally well to undergo a chrysalis from big English club to large global football club. However, I think they have arrived at a crossroads now, where they need to stop ignoring the pop ups and finally upgrade their software. If Wenger does leave this summer, then the board will have to manage one of the most difficult appointments Arsenal has ever had to make.
Whilst I am not suggesting that we appoint Colin Lewin or Gilles Grimandi (GET IT? a decorated player from our recent past with the initials GG!), or the current manager of Grampus Eight (Yahiro Kazama, in case you were wondering), it does feel as though the club has again reached a crossroads where there is a need for bravery.
Whether Wenger stays or goes this summer, Arsenal need to start succession planning to make the passage to the next manager smoother (they ought to have started this process in 2014 in truth). There probably need to be some internal appointments to spruce the place up a little. The next coach needs to represent at least a little bit of a departure from Arsene, to aid the revitalisation process and re-engage the players to the maximum level.
Understandably, there is a lot of anxiety over the current Arsenal board’s ability to deal with the modernisation process. Thus far, their competence has been concealed from us in truth, with the stadium move completed before most of them were in situ and a legacy manager. Internal structures have changed, with revamped commercial and medical staff and a training ground redesign.
Their next task will be far more public facing, carried out under the glare of the spotlight. This is where we see indubitably what the board are made of. Arsenal is very far from a disaster area, the club itself is in a good place and the squad is very decent. But the next evolutionary step is critical. The hard drive is sound, but new software needs to be installed. Anyone that has ever owned an iPhone can tell you that upgrading to the latest iOS is fraught with danger and tension.