Are Arsenal Prepared for Life after Wenger?

January 12, 2017

Earlier this week, the German publication Kicker published an interview with Arsenal playmaker and record signing Mesut Özil. In it, Özil stressed his readiness to sign a new contract with the club.

The only sticking point, he said, is the uncertain management situation. With manager Arsène Wenger’s own contract set to expire in June, one of the team’s star men has simply asked the club for an indication of who his boss will be if he commits his prime years to Arsenal.

“The club knows that I am here especially because of Wenger, who brought me, whose trust I enjoy,” Özil said. “The club also knows that I firstly would like clarity on what the manager is doing.” (See Arseblog’s full English transcript here)

In one sense, Özil’s declarations are reassuring: He seems content with his life and work and reluctant to jettison that for greater riches elsewhere.

On the other hand, his doubt is troubling. It suggests one of Arsenal’s greatest assets is as much in the dark about the manager’s position as the rest of us. A reasonable inference from Özil’s plea is that the club’s executives have not shared the outlines of a succession plan with him.

Given the discretion with which Arsenal conducts business, we shouldn’t be surprised that all the details haven’t emerged. We won’t see a five-person managerial short list, for example.

But we don’t even have reassurances, a succession philosophy, or indications of a decision structure to hint that the club is prepared for the possibility of life after Wenger.

The outlines of a plan

Three years ago, we lived through a similar scenario. Until Arsenal secured the FA Cup that spring, Wenger’s future remained much in doubt.

The risks of that state of affairs did not disappear; they were only deferred. As a result, the observations I made in my October 2014 piece “Arsenal After Arsène” are still germane.

In particular, we should look at the steps Arsenal have taken to prepare for the managerial transition. Have the Board and club executives implemented practices that would produce an effective succession? According to executive recruiting experts David Larcker and Stephen Miles, organizations should, among other actions:

  • Add succession expertise to the board, particularly the search committee chair
  • Develop a robust succession architecture to cover needs from immediate emergencies to a five-year horizon
  • Use external advisors to assess candidates and work closely with the board
  • Prepare to shuffle the current management team if any members block the development or advancement of others
  • Expose promising internal candidates to the board

Although the club won’t engage in all these activities in the open, we can expect the Board and Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis to reflect on these needs and to describe their preparations broadly.

Not only have Arsenal’s leaders failed to substantiate their thinking and actions on the matter, they have not answered the critical question—who is primarily responsible for the appointment.

Supporters, observers, and the media don’t know, despite the experience of 2014, who’s leading the club in this critical respect or how the leadership is approaching the decision. More troubling, the players don’t know.

The shortcomings of an insider Board

These developments, or lack thereof, do not inspire confidence that the Board has overcome its one obvious flaw. That’s the narrowness of experience and perspective of its members.

Six men. All white. Three grandees of the club. A father and son pair with no football background. And the CEO.

Even if we acknowledge that some members of this group have participated in bold, forward-thinking decisions in the past, the Board’s homogeneity and its implications are unavoidable.

First and foremost, the lack of breadth and diversity. A substantial body of organizational research indicates that the most effective decisions emerge from groups with a broad range of experiences and identities.

Not only do those perspectives bring new ideas, the very inclusion of difference sparks more careful decision making. (See “Better Decisions through Diversity” from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.)

As Katherine W. Phillips wrote in Scientific American in 2014, “Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table. Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior.” (“ How Diversity Makes Us Smarter”)

There have been no additions to the Arsenal Board since Wenger’s last contract renewal. No apparent changes of behavior, either.

As a result, the club doesn’t inspire confidence that it can make the optimal preparations for Wenger’s departure.

The task that awaits

These preparations are vital to the club’s future because a monumental challenge faces the next manager.

During his 20-year tenure, Wenger has evolved into something of a Chief Football Officer. He’s an executive with both strategic and daily tactical responsibilities.

Both aspects weigh on him. He has said, for example, that he considers the financial well-being of all the current staff when he is making decisions about major outlays on new players.

“What matters to me is that when you have a club with 600 employees, you make sure you can pay everybody at the end of the month.”

That was his response to a question last August about Arsenal’s perceived hesitation in the transfer market.

In addition, very little seems to happen on the sporting side without Wenger’s okay. For an indication, read the engrossing account of 2014 loanee Kim Källström. Arsenal’s physicians diagnosed him with fractures in three vertebrae as he was on the verge of moving to North London.

After the medical assessment, Källström remembers, Wenger said:

’The transfer window shuts in a few hours. It’s impossible to find a replacement. Either I take you or no one.’ Surprised, the others turn to the big boss. No one knows how he’ll continue, but they know that his words are law. It’s evident that he has not anchored his decision among the rest of the staff. He decides. ‘You’ll stay, heal, and train. I’ll take you when you’re fit.’

When this one figure who has made so many decisions, the one to whom so many people have deferred, departs the scene, Arsenal faces a cultural and structural upheaval. Wenger’s replacement will have to coach the entire organization through that challenging transition.

Indeed, even taking into account a restructuring of Wenger’s responsibilities, the new manager will have to be comfortable with an executive’s perch.

Wenger described the evolution of his responsibilities at length in a conversation last March:

I remember I was manager at the top level [in 1983]. It was me, 20 players, and a part-time physio. Today, we are in 2016, I have a real team around me, a team of assistants, specialists of all kinds—statistical analysts, video analysts, scouting, physios, doctors, dieticians. So my job today has, of course, changed.

And I get so much information, that the problem of the modern manager is more to select the three, four [pieces of] information about the multitude he gets which are really significant.

Today you are much more in selection mode and decision mode.

Today you have other problems, to manage your own team of consultants … That creates human problems as well.

Here, Wenger is talking about his responsibilities in terms most executives would find familiar. He has to identify meaningful points amidst a flood of information and make important decisions on the basis of that selection.

Add explaining those decisions with equanimity to agenda-driven writers and broadcasters, demanding supporters, highly compensated players, colleagues within the club, and its leadership, and you have a colossal undertaking on an almost daily basis.

Given the magnitude of this work and its effects on Arsenal’s success, those in position of authority should be better prepared to handle life after Wenger than they seem to be.


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