Arsenal fans got a rude awakening this morning when reports emerged claiming Arsene Wenger was in close contact with former club AS Monaco over a potential return. The manager quickly denied rumours, but it is a reminder of how vulnerable the Gunners are to losing their talismanic leader.
Wenger has been in charge of Arsenal for 18-years and has used that time to transform not only the fortunes of the club, but the club altogether. He has brought unprecedented success to north London and will leave with an incredible legacy which includes a world-class training ground, a world-class stadium and a world-class squad of players.
What Arsenal fans may not realise is that Wenger's time as Arsenal manager is coming to an end. All the signs point towards this being the 64-year-old's final contract at the club. It will take him into an incredible third decade as manager, and should be just enough time for him to reap the benefits of the club's strengthening financial position to build a squad capable of collecting a major honour before the summer of 2017.
He spent big this summer, buying up a mixture of experience, world-class talent, and hot prospects. Wenger wants success. He is tired of restricting the budget and will continue to spend big to go out on a high. But while Wenger has got his heart set on winning titles, the club should be preparing for life without him.
The dark knight
Wenger is not just the manager of Arsenal, he is essentially the symbol. Everything that Arsenal stands for seems to have been born out of Wenger's belief system. They have built a strong financial model around Wenger's economic theories and have won major trophies based around Wenger's footballing philosophy.
Ask any of the major players at Arsenal why they are there and they will say Wenger. Even Josh Kroenke, son of majority shareholder Stan, admitted that the only reason his father invested in the club was to be associated with Wenger.
He has kept the club afloat in difficult times. He has made tough decisions, damaging his own legacy for the sake of the football club. In another universe, Arsenal may not have gone nine-years without winning a trophy, but in yet another, Arsenal may have sacked Wenger, dropped out of the top four and have been unable to claw their way back up the table.
Had Arsenal dropped out of the Champions League, sponsorship deals with Emirates and Puma would have lost significant value and Arsenal would have been unable to sign the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez as Financial Fair Play came into force.
Wenger was nearly laughed out of the club when he suggested a place in the top four was a trophy, but his tough decisions and excellent management kept Arsenal in a crucial position, making their current stance in football stronger than it ever could have been otherwise.
In some ways, he is the dark knight, making the sacrifices that others do not want to; absorbing the blows of harsh critics when offers from other, better clubs, were on the table.
Arsenal's stance of Wenger's replacement is undoubtedly a sore subject. The annual AGM–the highlight of which was another impassioned speech from none other than Wenger–saw a fan ask a question about the plan to replace Wenger.
Because of Manchester United's epic post-Alex Ferguson hangover, there is concern that Arsenal will head down the same route. However, chairman Sir Chips Keswick brushed the issue aside.
This is dangerous territory. There is nothing to be gained from ignoring the inevitable. The club must be open about Wenger's departure and must reassure fans that the utmost is being done to replace him.
Will Wenger choose his own successor? Will he move upstairs? Will he retain some form of control? These are key questions that the Arsenal board must ask themselves.
If you look closely at the club's actions, you can see that there is already plans underway that Wenger will not benefit from. Most notably, the hiring of Andries Jonker as the new head of the academy.
Word has it that Jonker was very much the choice of chief executive Ivan Gazidis, who has an ambition to turn Arsenal's academy into one of the world's best. Wenger won't reap the rewards of this project. They are looking at almost a decade of organisation to produce anything like Barcelona's La Masia has done over the years.
Similarly, Shad Forsythe has been brought in as a new fitness expert. Again, this is believed to be the work of Gazidis, who wants to make sure Arsenal's off-field preparations are amongst the world's best.
Reading Amy Lawrence's article on the fitness guru from America makes for interesting reading. As Arsenal's current injury problems suggest, Forsythe was not expected to fix the issues overnight. It is a long-term project which will have to change the attitudes of all the current squad players–except the German internationals, of course.
Again, this is going to take years to achieve and Wenger will not be around. These a preparations being taken to make sure Arsenal are in the best position to handle life without their inspirational manager.
Unless Wenger's replacement comes from within the club, there is no point discussing potential successors. Football moves so quickly that it would not be stupid to suggest that the man to eventually replace him isn't even on the radar.
Whoever he is, it will have to come later, but like the decisions on Jonker and Forsythe, it should be done without Wenger in mind. He may have earned the right to choose his replacement, but it is important that the next manager comes in with a new set up ready to move on from Wenger's achievements.
Regardless of what happens between now and the end of his contract, Wenger's legendary status is assured. He should be the next man to have a statue outside the Emirates Stadium he helped create but a replacement is needed. If they leave it too late they could find themselves without the perfect man for the job and without the set up to succeed with what will most likely be a manager of lesser ability than the Frenchman.
Failing to prepare could be crucial. Arsenal can not afford to drop out of the top four like Manchester United can. They need to make sure the transition is seamless. That takes a lot of preparation. They have already started, but there is much more to be done.
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