There can be no more dangerous position in world football than that of the putative successor to Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, a notional role in the collective imagination which in recent years has been more of a curse than a blessing on more than one promising career.
In March 2011, with the club negotiating a familiar slump in their season and the attendant discontent of their support, a home fan walking to the exit through the Emirates Stadium press box paused by our desks and invited us to consider the merits of Arsenal appointing Owen Coyle. At the time, the Scottish coach was doing well at Bolton Wanderers, having overseen the promotion of Burnley two seasons previously.
On Monday, Coyle was presenting the Scottish Cup fifth-round draw, having last worked as manager of Wigan Athletic, a position he lost a year ago. It has been a rough ride for a bright British coach who never recovered from Bolton’s relegation in May 2012, but his odds now on being the next manager of Arsenal will only be slightly shorter than those for Gunnersaurus, the friendly green dinosaur who fulfils the function of club mascot.
Coyle’s fall from grace was a personal calamity but then he had only managed two seasons in the Premier League and that kind of career burn can happen to those who fail to gain a foothold in the top division. Altogether more spectacular, albeit not yet career-threatening, has been the struggles of Jürgen Klopp, whose Borussia Dortmund team are currently bottom of the Bundesliga, having been beaten away to Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday.
Klopp has for some time occupied a place as the leading contender to replace Wenger by virtue of his track record of success on a restricted budget, his zeal for attacking football and a reputation for being of the right kind of character. Unfortunately for him, things are not going to plan of late.
Sunday was Dortmund’s ninth defeat of the season already, compounding the Champions League reverse to Arsenal four days previously. We have been accustomed to some pretty steep falls from grace in the last two seasons in English football, with Manchester United’s disastrous seventh-place finish in David Moyes’ first curtailed season. United bottomed out at 12th in late September last year. Twelfth is also the lowest Liverpool have gone this season. Neither came close to last.
West Brom 0 Arsenal 1 - player ratings
West Brom 0 Arsenal 1 - player ratings
1/4 From the bench: Victor Anichebe
Offered a physical threat but struggled to make an impact as a second half sub. 6
2/4 Laurent Koscielny
Timely interceptions in the penalty area, the Frenchman has been badly missed by Wenger's side. 6
3/4 Nacho Monreal
Went off injured and was unable to make a serious impact on the game. 5
4/4 Aaron Ramsey
Still trying to find his best form. Unlucky not to have scored but played well throughout. 6
Much grace has naturally been extended to Klopp, a two-time league champion against the might of Bayern Munich and unforgettably a Champions League finalist last year. He is in charge at a club which has remained competitive despite selling its best players – mostly to Bayern – as well as controlling ticket prices and retaining its identity. The fact, however, remains: they are bottom of the Bundesliga with fewer points than Aston Villa after 13 games.
A blip? Quite possibly, but if one was in charge of forward-planning at Arsenal then this start from hell for the man considered by many to be the best fit to replace Wenger one day would be a cause for concern. No one would argue that Klopp has become a bad manager over four months, just that succession planning requires an immaculate sense of timing: the right man, in the right place, at the right time.
For instance, the appointment of Moyes at United felt like a decision that had been made at least a year earlier, perhaps longer, when Everton were more effective under him. When the time came for Sir Alex Ferguson to step down, with hindsight, the picture had changed again. The game had shifted in England, populated by less risk-averse managers like Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez. The caution that had served Moyes so well at Everton proved to be a hindrance at United.
In recent weeks, the theory has been advanced that now at last is the time for Arsenal to make a move for the commendably loyal Klopp, with his patience finally breaking at the constraints of managing a club that is second by a mile to the unstoppable Bayern. But when does a window of opportunity become grounds for doubt? When is a bad run less about the chances it offers to poach a manager and more about the questions it asks of his suitability?
“Arsène, thanks for the memories but it’s time to say goodbye,” read one of the two protest banners – which has been seen before – at The Hawthorns on Saturday. What does it say about Arsenal? Apart from its commendable politeness, like a firm but civil letter to one’s disgraced local MP, it seemed to hint at a deeper note of caution, perhaps even hesitation. Coming after a hard-fought away win, it felt that much more out of place.
There are times when Wenger citing his record of 17 consecutive seasons qualified for the Champions League, in spite of the drain of resources from building the Emirates and a successful balancing of the books, can sound like the apologist’s argument. Then you look at the situation that Klopp and Dortmund find themselves in and you have to wonder whether he might have a point.
There is plenty for Arsenal supporters to feel frustrated about, not least the ticket prices they pay, but by now the arguments over the latest shortcomings – the failure to buy a defensive midfielder, the lack of cover at centre-half – are academic. Wenger seems destined always to have neglected something many sensible people regard as fundamentally obvious, it is just that the details change from season to season. The more telling question is what value is placed upon what he has achieved.
There is no mood among the Arsenal board to change their minds about Wenger seeing out the three-year contract they awarded to him in May and therefore the question of change is purely hypothetical.
Even so, the issue of the succession, which can seem so breathtakingly simple at times when Wenger is doing all those things which make him so frustrating, becomes more complicated when the obvious alternative finds himself bottom of his league. Arsenal have more to lose through a bad decision on a new manager than United, who have so far tried to solve last season’s frankly disastrous showing with nothing more sophisticated than enormous amounts of money.
Of course, there is more than one man on the planet who can manage the club and one day he will have to be sought out, but on the weekend when Arsenal went within two points of the Champions League places, the return of the protest banners felt odd. Klopp has lost eight league games this season, more than Arsenal lost in both of their entire two previous league campaigns. Defeat to United last month meant this was Arsenal’s worst start to the season since 1982. They were eighth. Dortmund are 18th in an 18-team league and they have suffered more defeats than Burnley.
All this by no means makes Klopp a bad manager, but it makes you think twice about saying the same about Wenger.Reuse content