With patience for Unai Emery worn down to a nub and speculation mounting over his future, thoughts have naturally turned towards his potential successor. The departure of Arsene Wenger always meant Arsenal re-aligning with the stars of modern football and becoming a club that goes through coaches fairly swiftly. Arsene’s predecessor Bruce Rioch lasted just 12 months after all.
The name of Mikel Arteta has resurfaced in recent days. Arteta came extraordinarily close to landing the job in the summer of 2018 before he was bumped for Emery late in the recruitment process. The Spaniard has opted to stay beneath the wing of compatriot Pep Guardiola at Manchester City in that 18-month interval.
In the eyes of many, the “safe pair of hands” option has failed with Unai Emery. Personally, I am not so keen to categorise in this way, I just think the Unai Emery option has failed. A different ‘safe’ appointment might work just fine. That said, Arsenal have a history of left-field appointments when it comes to managers.
Arsene Wenger springs most comfortably to mind, but Bertie Mee was the club physio with no coaching experience whatsoever when he was appointed in 1966 and he won the Double in 1971. George Graham was a pretty brave, forward thinking appointment in 1986- his only managerial experience to that point was getting Millwall from the 3rd to the upper echelons of the 2nd division.
There again, Billy Wright was meant to represent a break with tradition when he was appointed in 1962. He was the first coach Arsenal appointed with no ties to the all-conquering team of the 1930s since the pre-Chapman days. It didn’t work out for Billy or for Arsenal in that period, but the appointment was an attempt to restart an Arsenal engine that had spluttered for a few decades.
In their current situation, Arsenal are probably going to have to be imaginative with their managerial appointments. There are more elite teams than there are elite managers at the moment and Arsenal are slipping ever further away from the elite bracket. Known quantities are not available to them- especially not in a world where Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United have struggled to land top coaches.
Spurs had to jump into bed with Jose Mourinho to arrest the staleness that had descended on the Pochettino era. Arsenal could try to go down the tried and tested but possibly past their sell-by date route in Ancelotti, Benitez or Allegri (two of those currently have jobs), or else they are going to have to gamble on the next big thing in coaching.
Bundesliga clubs have enjoyed success in recent times in promoting young coaches into top jobs. In this respect, scouting for coaches is similar to scouting for players- sometimes you have to hit the gamble button, because if you wait until they are ‘proven’, they are no longer available to you. It’s easy to see why Arteta ticks a lot of these boxes in our imaginations.
‘Imagination’ is the key word here. Arteta has never managed before, even if we’re told that he is a highly rated coach. So why does Arteta fire our imaginations in a way that, say, Pepijn Lijnders- the Liverpool assistant- wouldn’t? Arteta played for and captained Arsenal, but even his greatest admirers would not brand him a club ‘legend’ of any sort, the emotional tie with him shouldn’t be as seductive as it would be with other former players.
Mikel’s lack of managerial experience means he is untainted by failure. Linders took a job managing NEC in the Netherlands and lasted only four months. Arteta is able to dance on the margins of our imaginations a little more. He fills a similar space to Hector Bellerin in that he is urbane, intelligent, multi-lingual with the strongest of jet-black hairlines. He is the liberal Arsenal fan’s bit of rough.
He played in France, Scotland and England and was reared in Barcelona’s famous La Masa. His playing career took in long-term spells under Walter Smith, David Moyes and Arsene Wenger and is currently honing his coaching skills under Pep Guardiola, who moved heaven and earth to appoint him as an assistant upon his retirement.
Arteta retired at the tender age of 34 to focus on coaching and already seemed to be more of a coach than a player in the latter stages of his Arsenal tenure. The assumption is widely held that Arteta is slowly accruing Guardiola’s coaching genius by osmosis, before being released into the coaching wilds as a fully operational Pep replicant. A Peplicant, if you will.
There’s no evidence for this of course. He might yet forge his managerial chops from a bastard mixture of David Moyes and Arsene Wenger. Hell, he might even have forged his own, unique ideas and they might be good, or great, or shit, or kind of meh. Not knowing is part of the romance. Madrid and Barca struck gold with the similarly minded appointments of Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola himself.
So why is he only ever linked with the Arsenal job? He played for Everton for longer than he did Arsenal and, by the time you read this, they will probably have a vacancy, so why isn’t he linked back to Goodison Park? Why aren’t Everton fans as intrigued by the suave, urbane mystery of Arteta like a section of Arsenal fans are?
I think Arteta represented a kind of cultural symbol during his time at Arsenal. He was a bit like a ‘difficult’ Radiohead album, you either got ‘it’ or you didn’t. His game was based on intelligence, movement, subtlety and technical accuracy. To others, he was just quite a nice midfielder who passed the ball quite nicely and had a nice haircut.
Arteta came to represent something bigger, he was a symbol for the footballing sophisticates and an antidote to the ‘proper football men.’ This war was, I think, escalated by Paul Merson and Phil Thompson in their haughty dismissal of Marco Silva upon taking over at Hull City. Arteta represented more expansive, outward looking and, dare I say, ‘liberal’ values.
I asked fellow Arseblog columnist Lewis Ambrose about why he was so attracted to the idea of Arteta managing Arsenal, “Arsène Wenger meant so much to me and I loved Arteta when he played for us. Having a coach I could instantly connect with and root for after Wenger was something I wanted for my relationship with Arsenal. Emery’s time in charge has only reinforced the idea that I really miss that feeling when it’s absent.”
Arsenal also have more of a triage structure in place now to support a novice manager. That said, the handling of the ongoing Emery debacle has seriously dented faith and patience with the minders of that structure. Arteta feels like an itch that plenty of supporters are keen to scratch, a curiosity too burning to ignore. The failure of Unai Emery has naturally led many to wonder what an alternative timeline, with Arteta at the helm, would have looked like.