Thursday, November 30, 2023

Faith of convenience

When Carlo Ancelotti left Everton to return to Real Madrid this summer, Everton took four weeks to replace him, their exhaustive search leading them reluctantly to Rafa Benitez. I say ‘reluctantly’ because Benitez is not quite the coach that he used to be and because his Liverpool connections (and some of his comments about Everton while in that role) made him a controversial appointment.

The appointment of Ancelotti in December 2019 was arrived at with similar reluctance. Marco Silva was sacked during that month and the only real candidates available to Everton were Ancelotti- a faded managerial force- or former player Mikel Arteta, who had never managed a game. Arsenal were searching for a successor for Unai Emery at exactly the same time and, essentially, had exactly the same options.

Everton opted for Ancelotti while Arsenal went all in with Arteta. The reality for Arsenal is that they appointed their former captain because the coaching market was impoverished. Following the departure of Jose Mourinho in April, Tottenham ruminated on their next coaching appointment for a period of weeks that bled into months before reluctantly appointing Nuno Espirito Santo.

I think I was offered the Spurs job before Nuno accepted it. Crystal Palace endured a similarly onerous managerial appointment process before they hit the gamble button on Patrick Vieira, who had a mixed spell at Nice prior to moving to South London. Manchester United have chosen to stand by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who has done a good but not great job at Old Trafford.

United’s case is slightly different, I think, in that the presence of a club legend in the dugout plays well with their brand and we know that most of the decisions United make are driven by branding. What Everton, Spurs and Palace’s searches illustrate is that the managerial market is depressed for aspirational clubs. West Ham were at such a loss in the summer of 2020 that they rehired David Moyes (and to be fair, that has worked well for them- even if almost certainly by accident rather than design).

The likes of Mourinho, Ancelotti and Benitez are no longer at the vanguard of elite coaching, Klopp and Guardiola have solid jobs and are probably only available to the financially doped clubs for the foreseeable future anyway- Pochettino and Tuchel are also in this bracket for now, maybe Conte is too. There are more ambitious clubs than there are elite coaches, it’s that simple.

In Arsenal’s case, they took a gamble on Arteta in the hope that he would be the next elite coach, it is not just on the pitch where the club are trying to find undiscovered gems in a bid to gain an edge on wealthier rivals. The financial impact of coronavirus on clubs has also made them far less inclined to sack coaches and all the fiscal penalties that such a decision incurs.

After a disastrous August, Mikel Arteta has once again salvaged his reputation (for now, at least) with a perfect September capped by Sunday’s pulsating North London derby victory. I don’t think anyone seriously thought Arteta’s job was on the line on the basis of the first three matches, especially as the club spent much of August investing in the players Arteta and Edu had identified for his ‘project.’

The reality though is that every defeat takes a coach closer to the sack, it’s all ‘data’ that goes in your cons column until eventually everyone gets sick of you. Arteta was rather unfortunate in the first half of his managerial reign with a global pandemic occurring in his first few months in management. He had to manage a number of ridiculous situations within the club that he had inherited.

However, now I have the feeling that fortune has begun to turn in Arteta’s favour. Last winter, when an Arsenal devoid of creativity were circling the relegation zone, Mikel hung on to his job. He could scarcely have complained had he been sacked. He couldn’t have complained either had the club hierarchy decided to pull the trigger this summer.

At the end of the season, Arsenal were very much left in a “back him or sack him” dilemma. Arteta’s superiors either had to totally back his vision in the transfer market, or else decide that he doesn’t have the tools to oversee a rebuilding job of the magnitude required at Arsenal. There was no way they could repeat the mistake they made with Emery by asking a coach to rebuild without his own tools.

In the summer of 2019, Arsenal should really have sacked Unai Emery but, having not done so, they really ought to have bought him the players that he wanted. Instead, Arsenal decided to retain the coach and compounded the error by buying players that he didn’t really want. That Vinai Venkatesham and co elected to back Arteta this summer is probably a symptom of the environment as much as it is their faith in his coaching potential.

The appointment of Arteta was arrived at largely due to an uninspiring menu of other choices on the market and that situation had not drastically altered since December 2019, as evidenced by Tottenham, Everton and Crystal Palace’s convoluted searches. In my view, there are two main factors that have preserved Arteta’s job over the last year or so.

The first is that the club probably anticipated some pain in appointing a novice. You can’t appoint someone with no managerial experience then act surprised when he makes mistakes. The question then becomes whether you think he can learn from them quickly enough. The second factor is almost certainly the fact that no obviously better candidates have really been available.

In this respect, I wonder whether we are entering a new era of renewed patience with coaches. Covid economics have made it more difficult to sack coaches than ever, Sam Allardyce, Tony Pulis, Roy Hodgson and Neil Warnock have lost their cache with clubs fighting relegation and are edging towards retirement. Having a ‘project’ is the cause du jour and projects require patience.

However, the main drivers of this renewed patience are probably fiscal and the fact that hiring managers has become such a ball ache. On Sunday, after nearly two years in charge of Arsenal, Mikel Arteta fielded a team containing six players he had recruited and five players he had awarded new contracts to. Finally, it was his team and as Arsenal gave Tottenham a delightful shoeing, there was a sense (even if only a small one) of an era finally starting.

In a previous time and at another club, Arteta would not have survived long enough to see this day. At the other end of the Seven Sisters Road, Spurs are probably where Arsenal were when they appointed Unai Emery, failing to accept that a total rebuild is required and instead suffering all the hallmarks of status anxiety that have become familiar to Arsenal fans over the years.

The subordination to older star players who are only semi-interested in ‘the project’, a lame duck coach whose resume never really hinted at anything beyond mediocrity and uninspiring football. I am not proclaiming any kind of victory for the Arteta project yet, there is still far too much needed on a more regular basis to fully convince of the Spaniard’s credentials.

Arsenal have stuck with Arteta through a mixture of circumstance, a desire to put their stock in somebody after Emery’s reign which always had an awkward supply teacher vibe to it and a lack of other convincing options. To be fair, winning the FA Cup in 2020 almost certainly bought him some added kudos too.

Maybe five years ago Arteta would not have got this far. Had he immediately followed Arsene Wenger as manager, he probably wouldn’t have been afforded this level of patience either. He has held on to his job through favourable circumstances and now he has the opportunity to prove that the club’s convenient faith has not been misplaced.

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