LEADERSHIP TRANSITION

Chaos at Arsenal, Manchester United lesson in leadership transition

In Summary

•After 22 years in charge, it was gonna be difficult to replace Arsene Wenger.

• It appears that Arsenal realized late and tried to restructure towards the twilight of Wenger's reign.

Manchester United players celebrate their win against Crystal Palace on Wednesday.
Manchester United players celebrate their win against Crystal Palace on Wednesday.
Image: /COURTESY

Arsenal and Manchester United used to be big during the Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger glory era.

Well, whereas the Wenger glory era in the EPL ended more than a decade ago, there are similarities in the way the two clubs have handled the transitions and serious lessons to be learnt.

After 22 years in charge, it was gonna be difficult to replace Arsene Wenger. It appears that Arsenal realized late and tried to restructure towards the twilight of Wenger's reign.

 
 

The restructuring came a bit too late and even with the creation of the position of head of recruitment, which was held by Sven Mislintat till February 2019 and Edu's technical director came way too late in the day.

But to those who have been following the club, we know that Arsenal lost it immediately they parted ways with the former powerful executive chair David Dein.

Dein is the guy who hired Wenger in 1996 and after that invincible triumph, he made an interesting pronouncement: that Wenger had the job for life.

After his exit Arsenal has been on a downward spiral. Dein used to handle the commercial and contractual business end of stuff while Wenger was the on-field guru.

The two kinds of shared the director of football role and their combined brains recruited some of the most technically astute players who seamlessly cleavaged into the Wenger philosophy and the Arsenal business model.

Exit David Dein and the rain started. Situated broadly, when a revolutionary leader like Arsene exits you cannot replace him just like that and institute structures without him, given that he was at the centre of everything including the move to Arsenal’s state of the art Emirates Stadium.

The last-minute cobbling up of structures seemed to have failed terribly. Unai Emery was not a bad coach, but coming in to make weird demands of quality players like Ozil or relying on a derelict defense was gonna be a tall order.

 
 

You see, Arsenal had a system that supported Ozil's quality and strength and Wenger knew he was the alpha and omega of both the football and the commercial end of stuff and he built a system that allowed Mesut Ozil to thrive.

Then comes Emery and his philosophy that was neither clear nor supported by the right players. He got it wrong with Ozil and allowed Aaron Ramsey to leave for free. Things seem to be a lot more chaotic between the board and the pitch and its down to poor transition.

The ideal would have been to push Wenger up in a role between the then CEO, Ivan Gazidis, and a head coach. This should have happened around 2016 or even earlier and I believe it must be what David Dein envisioned when he said Wenger had the job for life.

With Wenger at some level, Arsenal would still have remained that mighty side that went a whole season without losing a game.

Without Wenger, the director of football, Raul Sanllehi, technical director Edu and the now-defunct position of head of recruitment; all working under the Managing director, Vinai Venkatesham seem to be missing a vital connection with the head coach.

And to be fair Mikel Arteta will need all the time and support to thrive. He's more of a head coach and maybe lacks the nuances and experience of managing a big club like Arsenal.

Whether Edu and company will help him with the management end of business is still unclear. As a midfielder who was comfortably converted to a defensive midfielder by Wenger, his reading of the game was up there and Wenger christened him Arsenal’s technical director of “our midfield.” To this end, I believe Arteta is the right guy, but that may not be the same of the structures.

Manchester United’s situation seems to be fairly similar though a bit different in the way David Moyes was appointed. You see, even though Ferguson had his chosen one in David Moyes, it appears the club underestimated Fergie's taller than life stature in the club.

Moyes, Guus Hiddink and even the self-confessed special one, Jose Mourinho, could not fill the void.

The plot was lost and teams go to an Old Trafford that is no longer the theatre of dreams.

The mighty Manchester United aura that Fergie had built is no existent and even small sides go knowing that they can win. Granted, these two once-dominant sides lost it when they failed to give adequate time for transition.

Both Wenger and Ferguson ought to have taken at least three years to institute structures that would replace them and have a hand in not only recruiting the right person to take over from them but also mentor them by assuming a higher role within.

Ferguson had a hand in the choice of successor but the structure remained the same and it will take serious faith and enough time with Ole Gunnar to get back to the glory years. In fact, Ferguson may need to offer lots of mentorship and guidance.

Arsenal lost it when Wenger overstayed and just left. I've been a big fan of Arsene Wenger and I always thought that he would climb up and play a bigger transitory role.

The day he left I knew we had failed as a club and as it is it will take some time for Mikel Arteta to have his philosophy supported by the commercial side if the club. Leaders need of necessity to think of life after they exit the space.

Are they laying the right foundations for the dispensations post their leadership?

In Kenya, we pay too much attention to individuals with little recourse to structures that support these individuals? Focusing on individual lip success stories can only lead us to the kind of chaotic space that both arsenal and Manchester occupy now. Getting out is always a problem.

Hesbon Owilla is a Researcher at Aga Khan Graduate School of Media and Communications