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OPINION: Emery never stood chance at Arsenal & Ljungberg won't fare much better

  /  autty

Unai never really stood a chance at Arsenal, rather like David Moyes following Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. There is just too much change at Arsenal at present for anyone to develop a clear strategy.

Freddie Ljungberg is unlikely to fare much better. Hugely personable, his charisma is likely to bring a short-term bounce. The fans love him because he has red hair (or did), but can he coach? Inside the club, below the senior executive level, there is some scepticism.

Mikel Arteta, former club captain and current assistant to Pep Guardiola, was 24 hours from being appointed in May 2017 before former chief executive Ivan Gazidis swerved away from the risk and opted for the experience of Emery. Tactics seemingly trumped tribalism in that instance, but it’s clear that Gazidis and colleagues did not fully understand the importance of having a strong communicator at the head of the club, not so much for the media, but for players and fans. All can agree that, decent though he was, Emery was hamstrung from the start in that respect.

Arteta still would be a bold appointment, but he would also be a strong and articulate personality to offer overall leadership, as would Patrick Vieira, both alumni of the Manchester City coaching programme. Given that most football clubs perform 180-degree U-turns between managerial appointments, reacting to failures of the previous incumbent, you would surmise that Arteta and Vieira must be high up the very long short list, with Brendan Rodgers. Max Allegri, who has by far the best coaching credentials but less command of English, is further down.

In the long term, whoever succeeds Emery is going to find it hard work until the club establishes where the power lies and what it actually wants. In theory Arsenal are run by chairman Chips Keswick, 79, owner Stan Kroenke, 72, and fellow board members Lord Harris, 77, and Ken Friar, 85, with Josh Kroenke, son of Stan, at 39 the token voice of the under-70s in the boardroom. Previously there was at least a bridge between the elderly board of directors and the younger executives in Gazidis, imperfect though he was. That connection was lost when he followed Wenger out the door to join AC Milan in September last year.

Gazidis had made a string of appointments to secure the post-Wenger succession and effectively left them to fight it out among themselves for control of the levers of power. Raul Sanllehi emerged victorious and was anointed head of football; Sven Mislintat, the chief scout, left soon after. Vinai Venkatesham quietly emerged as a Sanllehi ally and was made managing director, while Huss Fahmy, the contracts negotiator, steadily increased influence. To that mix they have now added Edu as sporting director. Emery, a chief coach rather than a manager, never had the charisma nor the results on the pitch to assert himself in that scramble for authority.

The closest he came was earlier this year when he wanted the club to recruit Monchi, widely regarded as the best sporting director in the world, with whom he had worked at Sevilla. Arsenal insist they didn’t formally approach him. That may be true, but they were persuadable to the idea. That would have been a huge boost for Emery.

The key to much of Manchester City’s success is the closeness of the Txiki Begiristain-Pep Guardiola relationship, the sporting director and coach having known each other since their playing days. Yet Monchi chose to return to Sevilla rather than join Arsenal.

The broader issue is that the board in name — Sir Chips, Stan Kroenke, Lord Harris and Friar — almost seem to fulfil an honorary role, compared to the day-to-day powerbrokers: Josh Kroenke, Sanllehi, Venkatesham and Edu. The recent suggestion of bringing former player David O’Leary on to the board came from the old guard, who might want an alternative view of the direction of the club. It came to nothing, the younger executives perhaps realising it could have been a threat to them.

Even below these exalted circles, there are yet more power games as individuals jostle for influence. Per Mertesacker has been exerting control as academy manager. He was behind the cull of youth team scouts, including Steve Morrow, last month. That recent turnover of established staff, which started when head of medical services Colin Lewin, goalkeeping coach Gerry Peyton and coach Neil Banfield followed Wenger out the door, means long-term staff, unsure of when the next major restructuring is coming, describe the atmosphere as being ‘like a morgue’.

Even the elevation of Ljungberg has a back story rooted in the changes. He was promoted to the first-team bench this season, but only after Steve Bould became bored of being frozen out by the coterie of Spanish staff. Deprived of coaching duties and not being able to speak Spanish, the role of being the club man on the bench next to Emery seemed little more than that of mascot. Now Bould has a real job, coaching the under-23s.

Amid all of these swirling circles of influence, the centrifugal force is Josh Kroenke, who is expected to become chairman when Sir Chips steps down. His interest in Arsenal is genuine, he has the trust of his father, is in almost daily communication with Sanllehi and Venkatesham and is on the board. He has a hand on all the levers of power.

But he also president of the NBA Denver Nuggets and NHL Colorado Avalanche franchises and can’t be in three places at once. Absentee ownership isn’t necessarily a problem, as Liverpool have shown. Yet they have Mike Gordon, a Fenway executive with the complete trust of John Henry and Tom Werner, who essentially flits between New England and old England. And, crucially, he has overseen a period in which Liverpool have got recruitment invariably right in recent years. There is no sign at Arsenal of that, a problem which goes back into the last days of Wenger.

Once the club were at the cutting edge, the envy of Europe: think Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy, recruited at 16 for nominal fees or Robin van Persie at 20 for £2.75million. More recently there has been Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin who could all be cited as Arsenal signature signings, talented youngsters bought up relatively cheap before their market value exploded. There hasn’t been much of that of late.

It wasn’t even that Arsenal were caught cold by the explosion in analytics, which has been so well used by Cambridge University physics PhD Ian Graham at Liverpool. Under Gazidis, they were actually at the forefront, purchasing Jaeson Rosenfeld’s US company StatDNA in 2012. Yet it could not be said the results of their stats-based signings have matched Liverpool’s. The most oft-cited signings said to have been backed up by stats at Arsenal have been Shkodran Mustafi, Gabriel and Mohamed Elneny, a mixed bunch at best.

Frannie Cagigao, the man who discovered Fabregas, remains at the club as head scout, so Arsenal have the expertise necessary. However, at present there doesn’t seem to be a clear lead or fusion between their stats department and their on-field scouting. The balance appears to be wrong. Either that or they need better stats.

Any club, even one the size of Manchester United, which gets recruitment wrong, will struggle. Until someone at Arsenal gets hold of that, whoever comes in will be operating in the shadow of the past glories without clear daylight to navigate a new route. Arsenal may have got rid of Wenger but the club are still reeling in the aftermath of his departure. You can remove the strong man, but it’s pretty much impossible to control the fallout that follows.