With the season of goodwill almost upon us, Arsenal fans were dealt a festive treat in the shape of several reports last week that the elusive former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola was interested in taking over the club next season at the end of his year-long sabbatical should Arsene Wenger move on. The news will come as music to the ears of plenty of the club’s fans, but is he the right choice to re-establish them as a top flight force?
It seems that whenever a big job in Europe is close to being made available now, the inevitable reaction is for the press to link Guardiola with the post – it’s happened with Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and AC Milan in recent months, not to mention Premier League duo Chelsea and Manchester City, although the Gunners have recently emerged as a shock, yet entirely viable alternative to many.
The main obstacle to such a switch would obviously be the departure of Wenger, a man who has managed at the club for the past 16 years, yet with talk over a new contract extension put on hold until the summer, the prospect of him leaving has become a very real one over the course of this campaign. The seven-year trophy drought looks likely to be extended this term to eight, while an increasingly vocal section of the team’s support wants the 63-year-old to be ushered out of the back door, or even pushed upstairs.
The very conditions by which this pressure has been heaped on Wenger are of his own making; he raised expectations too high by taking over a traditionally successful club that had fallen somewhat on hard times before going on to make them one of the greatest teams in English history. For fans with short memories, Arsenal had not been in and amongst the trophies with any sort of regularity for nearly two decades, yet seven years, in the all-consuming reactionary, knee-jerk environment of the modern fan has been seen rather bizarrely as tantamount to a personal affront. Plenty of the club’s ills are a direct consequence of the Frenchman’s actions and choice of approach, but the criticism, leading to Wenger becoming a divisive figure is strange in its voracity.
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The embarrassment of the side’s recent defeats to Swansea and Bradford felt like era-defining moments and further proof that a change of leadership right at the top was required. Wenger is seen as little more than a lackey for the board, in a cost-saving relationship which benefits both parties. A stooge of Ivan Gazidis and the FFP school of thought. To stick or twist has become a pressing concern and topic for serious debate like it never has before.
Goal.com reported last week through a source close to the 41-year-old: “Guardiola’s preference in England is Arsenal. The club are aware he would be interested in the job in 2013. Guardiola doesn’t want to go to Chelsea. He is worried about the lack of stability. He also has a good relationship with Wenger dating back to when he started doing his coaching badges at Arsenal.”
I’ve long since thought that Guardiola and Chelsea just doesn’t quite add up, despite Roman Abramovich’s long-standing admiration for the manager who led Barcelona to 14 trophies inside three years, doing a great job of picking the club back up after it gave into the egotistical excesses of the Frank Rijkaard regime.
After Manchester City appointed former Barcelona duo Ferran Sorriano as their new CEO and Txiki Begiristain as their director of football, it looked for all intents and purposes that the ground was being prepared for Guardiola to take over the reins from Roberto Mancini, particularly in light of the club’s terrible showing in Europe for the second successive season and you suspect that only if the Italian retains the Premier League title is his job secure while such a coveted option remains on the market and looking for work.
Wenger’s current deal runs until 2014 and while Guardiola would be unwilling to go behind his friend’s back to secure the job, an agreement could be a possibility; a smooth handing over of the baton. Wenger has looked increasingly tired and frustrated in recent years, none more so than this term, and he still looks as if he’s getting over the shock of so many key players leaving in such a short space of time in the pursuit of silverware.
Nevertheless, should Wenger cement a top four spot for a 17th successive season, a huge achievement in itself, then he may decide now is the time for a fresh perspective and he will likely have a large say in who his successor is and picking Guardiola, a man with such an outstanding pedigree, who shares his footballing ‘philosophy’ and who is most importantly appreciative of his standing at the club, would go a long way to making the move a realistic one given his blessing.
From Guardiola’s perspective, Arsenal fit in with the sort of challenge that he’s looking to throw himself into, while they also offer a mixture of tradition, prestige, long-term security and finances should he want to use them. He is seen as some sort of footballing kindred spirit in a way that City and Chelsea’s millions simply can’t match, while the timing for any switch to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United is simply way off.
There’s no denying that Arsenal look a fatigued club from top to bottom and that a culture of accepting second best has been allowed to gradually fester under Wenger in recent times, contributing to their steady and inexorable decline, but Guardiola is often hailed as the perfect answer to nearly every managerial question out there at the moment, regardless of context and timing.
The board will not sack the Frenchman at the end of the season such is their faith in his ability to see through their financial mission, and the will to make a go of it will oddly have to come from Wenger. Should he decide that enough is enough, then they could do no better than the Spaniard, and on the face of it, despite a degree of caution needing to be attached to these reports, the move, unlike the Chelsea one, at least stacks up from both sides.
Is he the right man for the job? That’s a difficult question to answer with any sort of authority, but he fits the culture, identity and style of the club to a tee, which is all you can really ask for with tricky handovers of power such as these.