‘Be careful what you wish for‘ writes Neil Moxley, of the Sunday People, amid ever-loudening calls for Arsene Wenger to resign following the capitulation of yet another Arsenal campaign just when it seemed history wouldn’t dare repeat itself in north London.
There is certainly weight to the argument. After Chelsea sacked Jose Mourinho (for the first time) in 2007, it took another three seasons, three managers and untold fortunes in the transfer market to claim their next Premier League title. Likewise, since parting with Rafa Benitez in 2010, Liverpool have finished inside the Premier League’s top five just once – a far cry from winning the Champions League under the Spaniard in 2005.
And Manchester United’s continuous plight throughout the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era is perhaps the most relevant case study of all; much like the legendary Scot, the sheer longevity of Wenger’s tenure has remoulded every aspect of the club around his own ideals. The Frenchman’s departure could have an equally destabilising effect as Fergie’s at Old Trafford, catalysing a similar downward spiral.
Indeed, a lack of viable replacements has emerged as one of the core arguments against dethroning Wenger. The Gunners have already missed out on Jurgen Klopp, Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho this season alone, assuming the latter two join Chelsea and Man United as expected, so any appointment will have to prove himself at the Emirates rather than arrive with indisputable credentials.
But the Premier League boasts the most formidable management faculty throughout world football. The arrivals of Guardiola and Klopp are evidence enough, but Rafa Benitez’s emergence at relegation-threatened Newcastle United, just two months after leaving the dugout at Real Madrid, surely puts any counter-arguments to rest. So the ideal successor to Wenger is likely already dangling under Arsenal’s nose.
At which point, I turn your attentions to Southampton’s Ronald Koeman, who has done a purely phenomenal job since arriving on the South Coast in summer 2014. Back then, many envisaged relegation for the Saints amid an incredible exodus that saw Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert leave for Liverpool and the Dutchman’s predecessor, Mauricio Pochettino, jump ship to Tottenham Hotspur.
But somehow, Koeman embraced the chaos to make Southampton even stronger and they’re now on course for a second consecutive top seven finish, matching the club’s highest ever final standing in the Premier League, despite once again losing two key players last summer in Morgan Schneiderlin and philosophy-embodying full-back Nathaniel Clyne. Miraculously, Southampton’s net spend in the transfer market under Koeman, considering he has steadily edged the club forward, is negative £22million.
Part of Wenger’s legacy in London will be Arsenal’s style of football. Whether appreciated by all fans or not, attacking football is now a part of the club’s DNA and their next manager will have to accept that or face the upheaval of attempting to reinvent the Arsenal identity. Even if they wish to add more attritional aspects to Arsenal’s game, it will have to be a case of evolution over revolution.
Koeman likes attacking football and technical players as well; he is, after all, a former Barcelona star, Netherlands international, Ajax manager and one of the greatest goalscoring defenders of all time; but it’s tactical expediency where he and Wenger welcomingly differ. Whilst Arsenal’s formation has hardly changed in the last decade – indeed, Arsenal have started all of their 30 Premier League fixtures playing 4-2-3-1 – Koeman has deployed six different systems, ranging from a 4-4-2 to 3-4-2-1, this season alone.
He’s not afraid to experiment but it’s never been simply for experiment’s sake; consecutive defeats to West Ham, Crystal Palace and Norwich inspired a change to a back three, which instantly heralded five wins from Southampton’s next six games. It’s also rendered the Saints as one of the Premier League’s more consistent giant killers. This season, Koeman has masterminded either draws or victories over Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester United and West Ham – once again, with squad that has theoretically lost value by £22million during his 20-odd months in charge.
But perhaps those who followed Koeman’s career before arriving in the Premier League aren’t so surprised by how well he’s performed in the St Mary’s dugout. Indeed, the 53-year-old has worked at some of the most prestigious clubs in Europe, namely Ajax, Valencia, Benfica and PSV, and lifted trophies with all of them. In fact, from only one of the seven clubs he’s managed, the aforementioned Mestalla outfit, has Koeman’s win rate dropped below 45%. Overall, a strong and diverse record spanning four different top flights.
Likewise, there’s a gentleness and dignity to Koeman that is continually refreshing in the dog-eat-dog world of Premier League football. There is always a reluctant tone to his voice when criticising referees and he usually accepts defeat with grace. Perhaps Arsenal fans want their club to appoint a successor with a sense of grit and nastiness about them, but good manners hasn’t stopped Koeman achieving noteworthy success thus far in his career both as a player and a manager.
Koeman’s contract enters its final 12 months this summer, so Arsenal have to act quickly before Southampton open talks over an extended deal. Loyalty to Wenger can’t stand in the way of the club appointing another convincing choice of successor to their declining twenty-year servant.