Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Can a manager be bigger than the club?

The club is always bigger than the player. This statement, or some variation of the sentiment has been used by many clubs, players, fans and pundits, usually if a big player has been sold or is unhappy. This phrase has been brandished a lot by many Arsenal fans over the course of the past few weeks, so much so, that you wonder whether it is not in part declared in order to convince the declarer. That however is not the topic of the day though it is somewhat related.

Can a manager be bigger than the club?

In most cases the answer would be an absolutely, unquestionably and resounding YES. However there are rare cases when it is not quite as transparent as that and the issue becomes blurred. There are instances where a manager's success is unparalleled and therefore they become immortal. There are rare individuals in this world that manage to encompass everything that the club represents and in many ways become the embodiment of the club. It literally becomes impossible to imagine the club functioning as an entity without that physical representation. The most obvious case of this would be to look up north at the unimaginable job Sir Alex Ferguson has done. To accomplish so much and yet still have that hunger to further improve the club is something to marvel at. What makes this all the more marvellous is that he has managed to remain unquestioned throughout his career. Well, almost unquestioned. Even managers of such magnitude approach junctures where, despite the enviable success they have achieved, their decisions and credentials are questioned.

This leads me nicely to Monsieur Arsene Wenger. Despite the clear advancements of Arsenal Football Club, not only as a footballing side but as a business as well, he is now under agonising pressure and every facet of his management is under intense scrutiny. This to the man who took Arsenal from the lows of the Rioch era to turn them, almost immediately into title challengers and one of the most consistent teams in the league. With the exception of Manchester United no team has averaged as many points as Arsenal since Wenger joined the Premier League. A manager that defied all odds and created and cultivated a side who were able to endure the rigours of an entire season without suffering so much as a loss. A manager that has been more successful than any of his predecessors even though Arsenal are one of the most successful clubs in England with a rich tradition and history. Despite all that, he stands above all else and has become Mr. Arsenal.

League standings since the start of the Premier League:

                        M     W      D       L       GF     GA     GD      P
1 Man Utd      735   473   158   104   1454    628    826   1577

2 Arsenal        736   394   198   144   1271    670    601   1380

3 Chelsea        736   384   190   162   1219    696    523   1342

4 Liverpool     736   367   185   184    1192   714    478    1286

While this does not in itself make him bigger than the club by any means it highlights the importance he has established even if from a completely PR point of view. If you delve deeper though you realise that Arsene permeates every intricate facet of the club. He is actively involved in, or has final approval over the vast majority of decisions, both footballing related and otherwise. This is a man who not only interviewed but had a major say on the hiring of the man who eventually went on to become his "boss", Ivan Gazdis. This is a man who in many ways has become bigger than the club.

Despite his vast successes in the past the Arsenal fans are concerned, and in many regards, rightfully so. They have one point from their opening two games, a tough tie in order to secure lucrative and prestigious Champions League football, whilst being in the midst of an injury crisis so severe, it could fill an entire outfield team. And the cherry on the top, is a visit up to the old enemy. No, not the one down the road, but the team that was Arsenal's fiercest and closest rivals in Wenger's heyday. There is a dark cloud over the Emirates stadium at present and there are a large number of supporters voicing their discontent. That is not to say it is a majority of supporters, but certainly a large number are clamouring for the head of Wenger. For the first time since his arrival is there any serious discussion amongst fans questioning if he is the right man for the job. 

Wenger feeling the strain
So how could have all this of happened? How do you go from a team challenging on all fronts to a shambolic mess of uncertainty in the space of just 6 months. I think there are many reasons which can help explain such a perceived decline in fortunes which we can delve into and debate until the end of time. For this article however I will be focusing on just one, and how valid it is. 

There are segments of the support and the media which are attributing this almost entirely down to Arsene Wenger. The question is then, why don't the board just sack him and get someone that can do the job? It is understandable with the way modern football is at the moment that many feel this way and think this may alleviate the problem but I for one think it almost ludicrous that anyone thinks this may work.

There is no clarity from the club as to why there have been no real signings and as such there is no guarantee that this will be solved by a incoming manager. There could be issues we are not aware of and despite Wenger's

Many people have argued that Wenger no longer has anyone that he reports to. Due to his standing at the club he no longer has to justify his decisions and he is on a train called stubbornness express and it only stops where he wants to go. Whether this is true or not I do not know and nobody can answer that aside from people within the club but there are people who have recently asked me if I see a Director of Football role as something that may solve the problems or whether it would ever happen.

For those of you not completely sure or in need of clarification, a Director of Football handles player recruitment and then the manager/coach is in charge of the first team, selection training and the day to day management of those players. This is not to be confused with the role David Dean played at the club as he did not identify the talent and thrust it upon Wenger. Just thought I should clear that up.

This idea is interesting for a number of reasons which we shall look at. The fact that this has been so unsuccessful at a number of clubs is an indication of the times for Arsenal fans. So little is the faith in Wenger with some of these people, that they feel he should not be allowed to be in charge of recruitment despite a pretty phenomenal record of bringing talent in.

That aside there are some legitimate benefits and some glaring drawbacks to this approach. I will start with the positives.
  • It will ensure there is transfer activity. With one man appointed with the sole purpose of player recruitment, it is fair to say we are more likely to see activity. His only purpose would be to buy players he identifies to improve the team. If he is not doing that then he is not performing his only function and will be in the market for a job.
  • Arsene Wenger is a very busy man and if someone is handling this side of the business then that leaves Wenger to focus on preparation, training and tactics.
  • A Director of Football allows for another perspective on the teams ability and how they can improve. It is not just down to one person to decide if the team needs strengthening.

So whilst Arsenal fans may think that on the surface this may be a good idea as it ensures investment there are some very significant factors to consider.

  • The manager will no longer be able to control recruitment. Although he will be able to identify players he would like to see at the club, the Director of Football may disregard and bring in a player who the manager doesn't want. We have seen this in many cases where there are differences of opinions between the two and it never really works out for anyone, player, manager or club.
  • With the manager in charge of recruitment he can identify players he thinks will suit the system and tactics he is looking to deploy for the forthcoming season. This would not be the case if the decision was down to the Director of Football.
  • The manager may have genuine targets not acquired due to disagreement.
  • The Director of Football is only there for player recruitment and as such may just buy to justify his position and not for the benefit of the team.

So despite the argument for both sides I would suggest there is certainly more room for error with a Director of Football. It has the potential to create conflict, destabilise the players and create uncertainty amongst staff.

Will it ever happen at Arsenal FC? I highly doubt that while Wenger is in charge at the club any such position ever comes to fruition. This is a man who will want to be fully in control of the team available to him. He is very particular and must be in control of these issues. Rightfully so, nobody would like to manage a team of any kind with people you don't want or need. Whilst it may appease some fans in seeing signings arrive and I agree another force strongly encouraging signings would be welcome especially this season. Surely this force should already exist in the club, should it not? Whether it be in the form of the board or owner there must surely be some conversations encouraging the purchase of players needed.

In the end it comes down to who would be better at identifying the talent. I would agree that this season it seems as though Wenger has not done what was needed but you forget we are not finished. There is just over a week left and this could change everything. For me, there isn't anyone else I would want to be in charge of player recruitment. What I would like to see however is open and honest discussions into the failings of the transfer market with regards to main targets.

It is apparent that Wenger's status is such within the club that he is under less pressure to justify his actions and he is left alone to manage the club. Whether this has led to complacency or not is not clear but one thing certainly is; Arsene Wenger will continue to have almost complete control of the club including he has managed for over 15 years.


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