Joachim Low is the front-runner to take over from Arsene Wenger in the summer, though Arsenal will have to negotiate a complex exit strategy with the German FA to get their man, given that Low has two years left on his contract and has to defend the World Cup with the national team this summer.
The German national team coach is emerging as the internal favourite as Wenger’s near 22 years with the club draws to a close.
However, it still remains within the gift of owner Stan Kroenke to grant a stay of execution to Wenger, as he did last summer when an excellent FA Cup final victory over Chelsea allowed the Arsenal manager to justify this current two-year contract. Until that victory last May, even those close to Wenger remained unsure of his intentions or his fate.
Arsene Wenger is now surrounded by the winds of change at the Emirates Stadium with a number of new influential officials
What is new now is that the ‘catalyst for change’ which chief executive Ivan Gazidis had promised prior to last summer has been delivered. Sven Mislintat (head of recruitment), Raul Sanllehi (head of football relations) and Huss Fahmy (contract negotiator) are the new executive team. Jason Rosenfeld, of StanDNA, Arsenal’s analytics man who came in 2012 continues to have growing influence. Transfer negotiator Dick Law is going and chief scout Steve Rowley has stepped down to a consultancy role.
Bit by bit Wenger has been surrounded by Gazidis appointees. With at least two key board members having come to the decision that he should go last season, Wenger is now isolated in a way he has never been before.
Low represents something of a risk in that he hasn’t coach at club level since 2004 and has just two major trophies at club level, the German Cup with Stuttgart in 1997 and the Austrian Bundesliga in 2002 with Tirol Innsbruck. That said, the last 12 years taking over from Jurgen Klinsmann as national team coach have been extraordinarily successful, with a World Cup win in 2014, third place at South Africa 2010, runners up at Euro 2008 and semi-finalists at Euro 2012 and 2016.
He brings experience, heavyweight reputation and a natural gravity in the eyes of the emerging young German players Arsenal would like to sign. Wenger benefited hugely initially at Arsenal from the fact there was an excellent generation of young French players, all of whom saw Arsenal as a club of choice because their compatriot was in charge.
That time, has of course, passed. Even Wenger’s closest friends have urged him to quit. And his admission in the fall-out of Thursday night’s 3-0 defeat to Manchester City, that this team is regressing, seemed to hint he is ready to take the hint.
Asked whether this season was worse than last season, he said: ‘Yeah it is, because last year we won the cup and made 75 points. I don’t deny that. We analyse that at the end of the season and don’t worry. I can live with reality.’
The question is whether the owner still wants to live with reality of an Arsenal in sixth place. Now added into the political equation is the arrival of Josh Kroenke, a club director at 37 and potential heir to his father. Since January he has been living mainly in London, making his presence felt around the club, visiting departments and assessing the club’s capacity to compete with the big six.
Ostensibly he was is here to learn about the club and develop an e-sports strategy, to absorb somehow the rise of professional gamers and YouTubers into the club and to bring his experience from the Denver Nuggets NBA team and the Colarado Avalanche ice hockey team.
But it’s hard to see Kroenke junior’s presence as anything but the beginning of the end for Wenger. If he is to have growing role at the club, and some think he is being prepared to take over from 78-year-old Sir Chips Keswick as chairman, then it will feel like Wenger is pretty much surrounded by agents of change.
Of course, Kroenke junior wouldn’t undermine or contradict his father and Stan’s admiration for Wenger remains the manager’s trump card. Whether Wenger can rely on that card coming up again and again is uncertain: defeat to AC Milan in the Europa League and another season outside the Champions League would surely spell the end.
Arsenal’s recent financial results demonstrated just how much the club are missing their Champions League income. In the six months from June – November 2017 revenue fell by £23.4m compared to the same period in 2016 ‘as participation in the UEFA Europa League… adversely impacted broadcasting, ticketing and commercial revenues.’
At present, it looks like an adjustment the club will have to get used, rather than a one-year blip. Just as disconcerting for the board, were the half empty stands on Thursday indicating season-tickets holders who can’t be bothered to turn up to a game which would have been anticipated as one of the best clashes of the campaign at the start of the season.
No-one, not even Wenger, can escape the harsh realities of weaker cash flow. Last summer Arsenal made a £58.4million profit on player transfers. But the reality was they were concerned that they were beginning to threaten the Premier League’s Financial Fair Play Restrictions, which limit wage bill growth to commercial income growth, a revenue stream Arsenal have traditionally been poor at maximising.
Hence the recent Emirates renewal for shirt sponsorship at £40m a season. That allows them to start negotiating a shirt sleeve sponsorship for next season, which means an extra £8m-£10m, which can be spent directly on wages.
Though they’ve lost Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Francis Coquelin, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gabriel, Wojciech Szczesny and Kieran Gibbs since the summer, Mesut Ozil has moved on to £350,000 a week deal with Henrik Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on about £250,000 a week.
Jack Wilshere may be feeling the rough end of those deals. Arsenal want his new contract, still in negotiation, to include a substantial element of ‘pay-as-you-play’ given his injury record. But it is also a reality that, having spent so much on incoming stars’ wages, Arsenal will have to keep a lid on new deals.
identified, the expectation among senior figures being that Ramsey is unlikely to sign a new deal, meaning he will have to be sold this summer to avoid another Alexis debacle.
Recruitment and retention has been a major issue for Arsenal of late. Put simply, not enough good players have been signed and too many have been allowed to leave. Many point to growing influence of statistician Rosenfeld, who works in the USA but spends plenty of time at Arsenal’s training ground.
Arsenal’s recruitment has been haphazard of late and, arguably, the amount of mediocre players largely on the basis of their positive stats is the reason why the wage bill became so bloated.
All around there is change at Arsenal: Raul Sanllehi has only just arrived so his impact has yet to felt but beneath him, Huss Fahmy, the contracts negotiator, has impressed with his ability to adapt to football and his undoubted sharp intelligence. Mislintat is only now beginning to have influence, pushing the Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang deals over the line. Next season, Per Mertesacker will become academy manager. Though a Wenger signing and and loyal to his manager, he was a Gazidis appointee.
In all of this Wenger has the final say over transfers and control. Yet there are less and less allies to advise or bolster him. Friends have departed and he no longer has the power and influence of old. New men have arrived and a new order is emerging. One club insider speaks of the scrabbling for influence and position as the old order wanes.
‘Everyone is trying to build their own empire at the moment,’ said a club insider. It’s because they all know that it’s the end of the Last Emperor of the Premier League.