In his press conference before the match against Southampton, James Olley asked Arsene Wenger whether there was a place for a Director of Football at Arsenal. Wenger channeled his inner curmudgeon and replied with one of my favorite exchanges of recent memory;
Olley: So you don’t think there’ll be a Director of Football here under any circumstances next season?
Wenger: Director of Football – I don’t know what it means. Is it somebody who stands on the road and directs players right and left? I don’t understand. I never could understand what it means, Director of Football.
This was Wenger in full old-man mode. It was as if a child had kicked his football into Wenger’s yard, knocked on Wenger’s door, asked for his football back and Wenger replied with “Football? What is a football? Is it a ball made of feet? Is it a foot long ball? I have never understood what it means this, football!” And then slammed the door in the kid’s face.
Wenger typically saves his acerbic wit for the press in order to dismiss them asking the same questions constantly. But this retort was aimed instead at another entity, which became clearer as Wenger expanded on why he wouldn’t want a director of football at Arsenal:
“When it does not work here, I am blamed, so if I am blamed for decisions I have not made. It is tough enough to be blamed for decisions you have made. It is difficult to imagine that somebody signs a player that the manager does not know. That never happened to me.
Some coaches are only interested in managing the team and they are happy with it. I am not like that and I cannot change myself now. I can change by trying to get better but my personality? I have 40 years of experience at the top, top level and I think, personally, I have a good knowledge of the game. I am who I am. That is it.”
This is clearly an argument that Wenger has either already had with another human being or one which he has prepared and it is a strong argument. We see at other clubs where player recruitment and management are divorced this exact thing happening: players being thrust on a manager who then has to take the blame for when the player doesn’t work out. There were even suggestions that Xhaka is one of those players at Arsenal. That Wenger didn’t want him but someone at the club did.
This exchange is being painted as an internecine war between “the board” and Arsene Wenger. Most comments I’ve seen suggest that “the war” is between Ivan Gazidis and Arsene but I wonder if there are more than one target on the board that Wenger is fighting against.
Majority shareholder Stan Kroenke appointed his son Josh Kroenke to the Arsenal board as a non-executive director in December 2013 and most supporters didn’t bat an eye. At worst they thought that this scion of the wealthy owner was given a cushy job so he could pull down a salary. But Josh Kroenke wasn’t appointed to the board to just drain money from Arsenal, he fancies himself as some kind of sports guy.
Back home in Colorado, Josh Kroenke is president of the Denver Nuggets. At the time of his appointment to Arsenal, the Nuggets had the 3rd best record in the NBA and their coach, George Karl, had just won coach of the year. Things were good, save one small problem: Kroenke fired Karl that summer citing his contract demands and the fact that he hadn’t been committed to Denver that summer and instead flirted with the LA Clippers (a rival NBA team). Kroenke and the Nuggets also parted ways with highly influential General Manager (a role similar to Gazidis’ for Arsenal) Masai Ujiri, who had won executive of the year in 2013. Ujiri went to the Toronto Raptors and since his arrival, the Raptors have finished 1st or 2nd in their division every year. Kroenke’s Nuggets on the other hand, went from a team with the 3rd best record in the NBA to one which routinely finishes 11th in the NBA and 4th in their division (of 5 teams).
George Karl was a notoriously difficult coach to get along with. He was the coach of my beloved Seattle Supersonics during their amazing run to the NBA finals (where they lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls II) and I know exactly how Karl rubs people the wrong way and how he can also often fail in the playoffs. Karl is the owner of several ignominious records, including being the only coach to win the most games in the regular season and get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the 8th seed.
Rumored to be the sticking point between Karl and Kroenke was a clause in his contract which allowed for an extension of three years. Karl wanted some extension though not all three years and Kroenke didn’t. Karl has spoken on record that Kroenke and Ujiri stopped collaborating with him after the transfer window closed that season, creating a strange atmosphere in the team and club. Neither Karl nor Kroenke wanted to have a coach on his last year and so the decision was taken by Kroenke to fire Karl.
It’s a decision that, oddly, still sits well with a lot of Denver fans: they feel like his team overachieved and that Karl was past it as a manager. Plus, Karl is seen as the type of coach who can only take you so far and his constant failures in the playoffs, especially his proclivity to lose in the first round, is an albatross he will probably never cut free. It’s also true that there is no relegation in American sports so our sports culture is less competitive in many ways than football.
For Arsenal supporters all of this must sound familiar. Wenger is in the last year of his deal. There are hints that there was an offer to Wenger but that both sides couldn’t agree. And recently Arsenal have been publicly making noise about a shakeup in the structure of the club. George Karl’s description of his final months at Denver paint a picture that also strikes a chord with Wenger’s final months:
A: “What I’ve loved about being here is with (the different front office regimes) is I felt we were all equal. This year, after the trade deadline, all of a sudden, I felt like Masai (Ujiri, the general manager) and Josh were over here, and I didn’t feel very equal.”
Q: What does “feel equal” mean?
A: “In the past, Stan (Kroenke, the team owner) would listen to all of us. I know I can be fired and the voices behind closed doors can be against me. But this year, I just felt that at the end, for a team that had so much success, unity and karma, I felt that Masai and Josh drifted into a direction that was difficult to understand.”
Q: What’s an example of that?
A: “It’s hard to say. It’s just communication, them getting mad about what I said in the paper more often than makes sense. Snippy texts about things. The whole thing it comes down to — you’ve got a great coaching staff, a coach who loves coaching the team, a city that loves the team.” (Karl gently pounds the table.)
This entire Wenger contract saga smells an awful lot like Kroenke’s dealing with Karl at the Nuggets and it looks like Wenger is being pushed out of the club. I’m not a “Wenger in” guy by any stretch but at the same time I’m not a “Josh Kroenke in” guy. I don’t think Kroenke has proven himself to be a competent executive in a sport which he played and football in England is perhaps the most competitive sport in the world right now, so tossing him the keys to the franchise is a massive gamble.
The Sun (Scousers don’t buy the Sun) are reporting that the Kroenke’s (both) want Theirry Henry to be the next manager of Arsenal and there are rumors that Marc Overmars will be brought in to be Director of Football. From a public relations perspective this is a great choice. Henry is a legend and Overmars hearkens back to the success of Wenger’s first season at Arsenal. But the question remains whether from a football perspective this is a choice that will land Arsenal in 3rd place or, like Kroenke’s previous bold decisions at the Nuggets, one which will land Arsenal in 11th. Either way, my suspicions are that Arsene Wenger is being pushed out of the club.