November 30, 2019 By Fabian Odhiambo
It’s funny, isn’t it? How sometimes we wish for things and then they finally happen and we are not sure if it’s what we really wanted. Being an Arsenal fan for the past few days, weeks, months and even years has been mostly like that. Some of us wanted Arsene Wenger gone from as early as 2009 until he eventually walked last year and then we weren’t sure how things would be like. Unai Emery came and we thought it would be alright, but really for the most part he has felt like that exotic cuisine that you just wanted to spit out after finally tasting it. Yesterday, on Black Friday no less, we got what we wanted: Emery out. Tomorrow at Carrow Road against Norwich City, we’ll be club legend Freddie Ljungberg’s red and white army as he takes his bow at the helm, albeit in a temporary role.
I still insist it shouldn’t have been Unai Emery. When the likes of David Ornstein then of the BBC broke the news of his impending appointment in May 2018 to succeed the long-serving Arsene Wenger, it was a complete surprise. No one had any inkling of that decision prior. It was out of the blues and simply put, Unai was an outsider. Let’s not kid ourselves; we all thought Mikel Arteta, former club captain and then (and current) Manchester City assistant manager would get the nod. He had been interviewed and from what has transpired, had done well. In the end the recruitment team of then CEO Ivan Gazidis, then Head of Recruitment Sven Mislintat and current Head of Football Raul Sanllehi for whatever reason baulked at Arteta and parachuted Emery into the mix and in no time had owner Stan Kroenke and son Josh to ratify him as the man for the job.
But what was the job? To get back to the top 4 and to Champions League football? To become competitive again? To challenge for the title? To develop a playing philosophy for the club from the senior side all the way down to the kids teams? In an attempt to understand the decision then it is important to know what the mission was for the new guy. Probably in the long term the job would constitute all those facets mentioned above: we have to have a playing style that the club is identified with, we have to be competitive enough to get into Champions League football and eventually be challenging for the Premier League title. On all fronts, save for a dizzying period at the start of his tenure during a 22-match unbeaten run, Unai Emery failed and that’s why the fans stayed away from his last stand at the Emirates and why he is no longer the Arsenal Head Coach.
We move. We move on along with Freddie (he’s actually Fredrick but Freddie just has a nice ring to it) Ljungberg, for now, at least. In the last 18 months he’s had quite a ride in the club; from coaching the Under 23s, to this season being promoted to assistant to Unai Emery in a role swap with Steve Bould (who went the other way to the Under 23s) and to eventually being named the interim Head Coach after Emery’s dismissal. If you didn’t know better you would think that he’s favoured by the gods – and maybe he is, or maybe they’re setting him up for an almighty fall.
Ljungberg was part of the swashbuckling Arsenal sides of between 2002 to 2005 that played with flair, verve and a beautiful ruthlessness that bewitched and seduced fans and neutrals alike, culminating into the club’s finest hour, the Invincibles of 2004. He wasn’t just a part of it, but a key component of that squad, it should be said. My favourite memory of him of course is his solo curling effort that sealed a fantastic 2-0 win over Chelsea in the 2002 FA Cup final in Cardiff. Ah, what a majestic goal (chills!). Actually, that’s not accurate. My favourite memory of Freddie is his red mohawk hairdo around that time. The goal was nice too. So as far as fan goodwill goes, he has it in bags. All Gooners will see him as a wonderful servant of the club who’s worked his way up and who would be bringing back the fond memories of the past and replicating them with the current crop of players. Nothing beats ‘one of our own’ doing it for us.
That said, the recruitment process for the head coach’s post is on even as Fresh Freddie gears up for his audition. The club, it seems, will be drawing up a shortlist of whatever number and presumably will be interviewing them to narrow down to their final pick. I am not so sold on this process and with reason – just look at the disaster birthed by this same method the last time. When Wenger was being replaced, Arsenal it is reported, interviewed Massimiliano Allegri, Mikel Arteta, Thierry Henry, Julen Lopetegui, Ralf Rangnick, Jorge Sampaoli and Patrick Vieira. Of course the man who got the job, Emery, too was interviewed. It’s also been widely reported that of that group, Arteta was the most impressive and was on track to winning the race until suddenly his lack of managerial experience and a ready backroom staff proved to be the deal-breaker.
You’ve got to question a recruitment process (and the personalities involved) when they go through a relatively large pool of candidates, seemingly settle on one then pull the plug at the eleventh hour because of reasons that they already knew about at the onset of the process. If you are going to turn cold on a candidate because he doesn’t have a ready backroom staff then it probably means you don’t really know what you’re doing. That’s a problem that can be mitigated by plucking coaches from the pool of coaches you have at different levels within the club as you and the head coach you’ve picked scout for and sound out coaches outside as you move along. I could understand not picking Arteta for his lack of experience but then again this is someone who captained and retired at the club so his knowledge of the workings of the club should be making up for his new kid on the block status with regards to coaching.
Another thing that makes one wonder is if you’re going to interview up to eight different candidates for the job (and discuss four others) then are you really sure of the kind of profile you are after? Normally this is how it works in the corporate world, I know, but the role of a head coach or manager at a big football club is a totally different kettle of fish. I would imagine that the recruitment team would have at most two different candidates who in their view represent a profile closest to what they are looking for, hence making the interviews more of a chance to get more information to reinforce their belief in one candidate. But if you have 8 people that you haven’t really thoroughly studied before, there’s every chance the one that really dazzles you might not be the best one, as has become evident in the Emery hire.
I really hope as a club we aren’t on a path to making the same mistake twice in succession. Granted, Gazidis and Mislintat are no longer part of the decision making in the club, but Sanllehi remains a key part of that, in addition to Managing Director Vinai Venkatesham, Head of Contracts Huss Fahmy and of course Technical Director Edu Gaspar who should have found his feet at the club by now since his appointment in July. These gentlemen as a team should have drawn up an agreed list of what they want from the new head coach and come up with maybe at most three candidates that would seem to fit that profile and get to them and eventually make their pick.
I would imagine Ljungberg, depending on his work during this period would be in consideration. Of course the names could be anyone, I can only speculate. Whom would I have? By now you must know where my allegiances lie: Mikel Arteta. I am convinced if we skip him again he’ll be the one that got away, the one we’d wish to turn back the clock for. If it’s not meant to be then there’s only one other logical choice to go for: Mauricio Pochettino. He’s available, lives in North London, great communicator, has an intensity-based style of play and most importantly, one of the best coaches in England. Oh, and there’s the small matter of him having coached Arsenal’s cross-town rivals, Tottenham Hotspur – I don’t think the Spurs fans would ever get over that perceived betrayal, so the appointment could knock them off-course psychologically for a while.
All said and done, it’s just a relief to have a fresh breath of air, something new albeit unknown to look forward to, to warm up to and to let yourself be excited about. Whatever happens down the road will happen, but for now can’t wait for kick off at Norwich tomorrow. We move.