Unai Emery’s sacking, not a moment too soon and viewed by a vast majority as several moments too late, brings with it a predictable flurry of names that could potentially fill the newest vacancy in N5. But who will be the best fit for the Arsenal rebuild job?
The Gunners seem set to revisit the idea of appointing Mikel Arteta, who apparently believed he had secured the job before a last minute pitch from Emery swayed the Arsenal hierarchy.
The style of football he is likely to bring with him, having spent over three years now as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City, plus the allure of a former captain who is well-liked by the fans, makes him an interesting prospect. The Spaniard clearly has some pedigree as a coach, otherwise he would not be so highly influential at City, and would be a uniting figure for a fanbase so polarised over recent years. Where he may find some detractors is his lack of previous managerial experience - is it a wise idea to throw a man into his first job when that job is as tricky as the Arsenal hot seat?
In the long term, he could be an excellent appointment if he can implement a vision and nurture what is a young team yet to realise its potential. In the short term, the worry is if he would be able to get Arsenal back into the Champions League where they need to be.
Arguably a better short term fit is Carlo Ancelotti - a man with experience of winning the Premier League and Champions League, known for his man-management skills and fresh off the back of holding Liverpool to a 1-1 draw.
He certainly falls into the category of a manager with elite pedigree and it is a fair bet whatever Arsenal side he put out would be more cohesive than the one seen over the last 18 months. The flipside, of course, is that his time at Bayern Munich - whilst it brought trophies- cast doubts on his training methods which were deemed by several key players to not be intensive enough.
Right now, after the sheer weight of information that drowned out much of Emery’s reign, that doesn’t seem like a bad idea. The players seem like they could do with an arm around the shoulder and a more straightforward tactical identity. But long term, the practicality of it may not be so sound, and the fear could be that in two years’ time Arsenal find themselves looking for a third manager since Arsene Wenger. Of course, that is the reality of modern football, but Arsenal would prefer to buck the trend rather than follow it, and a long term approach may be what’s needed to get them competing amongst Europe’s elite again.
Enter Mauricio Pochettino, a man who over five years got a team from the fringes of the Champions League to the final this year, only to see his work crumble around him as his players burnt out and his relationship with the squad deteriorated.
But if he can take an unfancied team, with a limited budget and a far from winning mentality, that far, then the possibility of what he can do with a squad brimful of potential and significantly more backing makes him a tantalising prospect. So much so that many Arsenal fans are prepared to forgive the fact that those five years were spent across North London at their biggest rivals.
The job Pochettino did at Tottenham was so impressive, across an extended period of time, that quite frankly most of a red persuasion would - as they did with Sol Campbell - revel in having their rivals’ former darling at the club. Whether Pochettino himself sees it the same way is widely believed to be a sticking point. The chances are he feels a great degree of loyalty to Tottenham despite the severance - but it is easy to see him being a good fit with a young, technically gifted squad like Arsenal’s.
Nuno Espirito Santo
A slightly more left-field option is Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo. The Portuguese has done an impressive job at Wolves, taking the Championship by storm and then establishing the Black Country outfit as a top 10 side in their first Premier League season. He is relatively young, has regularly rocked the traditional big boys in the league with his counter-attacking set up, and could well be an answer to the Gunners’ defensive problems.
On the other hand, his record against teams lower down the table raises question marks and even Wolves fans would admit he is tactically inflexible- although after the chopping and changing that preceded Emery’s sacking that might be welcome. He also lacks the pedigree of Ancelotti or Pochettino, and his close ties with agent Jorge Mendes make his idea of squad building a slightly unorthodox one, possibly enough to put big clubs off of him. It isn’t a disservice to him to say that it would be an underwhelming appointment, and he doesn’t quite fit the club’s identity- but Emery’s reign was underlined by a lack of identity, so there would at least be some improvement there. Whether he would bring enough improvement is the question.
Then there is the man whose job is to steady the ship in the interim. Freddie Ljungberg is universally adored by Arsenal fans and widely respected as a coach by those at the club. His work with the u23 side was impressive enough to earn him a promotion to assistant head coach and enough trust to be placed in temporary charge.
By all accounts he has a clear philosophy and style, is a good man manager and - in the same way as Arteta - would be a uniting figure. Like Arteta, the questions over his experience and ability to lead a club rather than just coach a squad is what might sway the Arsenal board away from making him a permanent appointment.
That said, the set up at Arsenal is such these days that this is kind of appointment they can afford to make- with a technical director and head of football that have taken on many of the responsibilities Arsene Wenger took upon himself. If he impresses- and with Arsenal’s next few fixtures there is every chance he does- then the possibility of Edu and Raul Sanllehi ignoring other candidates may be a very real one.
Opportunity beckons for an inexperienced name?
That is a factor that cannot be understated. Arsenal have the perfect structure to afford the opportunity to an inexperienced head coach like Arteta or Ljungberg. Midseason it will be difficult to prise Ancelotti away from Napoli, and whoever comes in will be given until the summer at least to rebuild and implement their ideas. That, again, suits an inexperienced but promising and progressive coach with a clear identity. Both former Arsenal men fit that criteria and you only have to look across London at Chelsea to see an example of a fan favourite- albeit with a year’s experience of management- returning and invigorating a club. The case for Arteta or Ljungberg is compelling, but the pressure to return to Europe’s elite as soon as possible may just sway them towards an experienced head. Santo doesn’t really fit into either and so doesn’t make a whole lot of sense - but then not a lot about Arsenal makes sense these days.
There is also the fact that both Arteta and Ljungberg will be available and it would avoid the obstacle of previous club loyalties- Pochettino- or current obligations- Ancelotti and Santo, and the difficulties of persuading their respective clubs to part with them. It is difficult to escape the feeling that there is no better time than now for Arsenal to take the plunge and appoint either one of them - they have little left to lose, after all.