Arsenal’s choice, it appears, came down to Massimiliano Allegri, a manager who has won four Italian league and cup doubles in a row, or Mikel Arteta, who has presided over precisely zero professional matches as a manager.
And Arteta will be Arsenal’s next manager/head coach, barring a last-minute change of plan. As so often when football clubs appoint their next boss, he is the precise opposite of what came before. Even when Arsene “Who?” Wenger arrived at Highbury in 1996, he had 12 years of management behind him.
Why Arteta? The Basque has been fast-tracking himself for such a role for some time, even when an admired club captain at Arsenal, and it cannot hurt to have worked alongside Pep Guardiola for the last two years. Guardiola’s success at Barcelona when graduating from the club’s “B” team and that of Zinedine Zidane when doing similar at Real Madrid has made an untried manager with the gravitas to talk leading players’ football language a viable option for big clubs.
When the time came for Wenger to step aside, Arsenal were not overly blessed with options, with a lack of Champions League football a significant hindrance. Early favourites Luis Enrique and Carlo Ancelotti carry the expectation of hefty renumeration and spending on playing talent, while it appears Allegri did not fancy working with the back-office framework that Arsenal had built around Wenger before his time finally came.
Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi, with freshly empowered CEO Ivan Gazidis, call the shots now, and Allegri, even after years within the highly political structures of clubs like AC Milan and Juventus, would have required more self-determination than was offered.
With Arteta as figurative frontman, Arsenal are attempting to reinvent the wheel of football management in English football. And for that structure, appointing a highly regarded number two seems ideal. That approach spells opportunity for the likes of Zeljko Buvac, whose leaving of Liverpool is yet to be confirmed but seems a fait accompli and who may yet join up with former Dortmund colleague Mislintat at Arsenal, or Rui Faria, set adrift from Manchester United and Jose Mourinho after 17 years of what he referred to as his “student dream”.
The conclusion of the Premier League season saw a spate of such high-profile assistants stepping from behind their previous overlords, but so far that looks a coincidence rather than a trend. Buvac and Klopp have enjoyed a fiery relationship over the years, with their severed alliance resulting from one last bust-up.
And Arteta’s departure from Manchester City is measure of his ambition, and his ability to convince Arsenal’s hierarchy that he is a viable option; Guardiola is unavailable, so plump for the next best thing.
It is a practice with a chequered past. Peter Taylor was a disaster at Derby County after one final blazing row saw him take his leave of Brian Clough and Nottingham Forest. Multiple Alex Ferguson assistants were hailed as the men behind success, Brian Kidd joining Blackburn with the words “I didn’t wanna die wondering” in the winter of 1998 and then finding himself relegated at the hand of Manchester United just a few months later.
Steve McClaren even made it as far as being England manager, but is remembered as one of the worst exhibits in that rogues’ gallery while Carlos Queiroz even went by the label “co-manager” at times, only to be a disaster at Real Madrid. It might also be recalled that eventual successor David Moyes, then at Preston, was Ferguson’s first choice to succeed Kidd as his right-hand man.
Moyes’ eventual fate at Old Trafford appears to have been borne in mind as Arsenal have been surreptitiously planning their managerial succession. At Old Trafford, he was working alongside Ed Woodward, a CEO only just appointed to the job, and had to overhaul the club’s cobwebbed scouting system, built on Ferguson’s contacts book, at the same time as steering the first team.
Arsenal’s new structure will guard Arteta against those strains of running a club top to bottom, but there will be no hiding place once the matches are being played and a rookie manager is feeling the brunt of a crowd’s criticism. His status as a former player can only insulate him so long.
But in turning to Arteta, untried, untested and with only insiders aware of his capabilities, Arsenal are taking a step as revolutionary as appointing Wenger. Expectant, ambitious assistant managers will be watching his progress closely.