- Premier League
Directionless Arsenal must chase attainable GuardiolaAlex Dimond December 12, 2012
Putting aside recent experiences, personal biases and pre-existing prejudices - is that even possible any more, in modern football's emotionally-charged environment? - it is hard not to admire Arsene Wenger.
The Arsenal manager is certainly a thoughtful, intelligent man - a scholar of sport and economics who has brought his knowledge of both to bear on the game he clearly loves.
He arrived on British shores in 1996 as something of an unknown, but it is no exaggeration to say he subsequently played a key role in revolutionising English football - both its style and its customs - and, extrapolating onwards from that, can therefore take some of the credit for the Premier League's development into a hugely-popular and lucrative worldwide product.
Wenger has long been regarded as a 'genius' (an overused word, but one that still probably applies in his case) but, like many geniuses throughout history, his gift has waxed and waned.
Arsenal won the double in just Wenger's second season in charge but, since guiding 'The Invincibles' to that remarkable unbeaten Premier League campaign in 2003-04, club and manager have won just a single trophy.
It is now seven years since the Gunners clinched that last piece of silverware, the FA Cup in 2005. To put that in perspective, they have now lost more League Cup quarter-finals to League Two sides (congratulations, Bradford) in the last week than they have won trophies in the best part of a decade.
On a related note, you now hear Arsene Wenger referred to as 'Le Professeur' far less than you used to.
In its place, Arsenal fans have taken to repeating the mantra 'Arsene Knows', a statement that outwardly exudes confidence in the manager, yet hints at an underlying exercise in collective re-assurance: 'Arsene Knows (doesn't he?)'.
Wenger has changed his own tone in recent years. When trophies are not forthcoming, it seems you have to invent new ones. Specifically, a Champions League qualification trophy.
"The first trophy is to finish in the top four," is a phrase variations upon which Wenger has repeated increasingly frequently in recent times. And yet on Sunday he was no doubt sitting in front of the television as two of his side's best players in recent times, Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri, played critical roles for their new teams in a game that could well come to decide the destination of that most desired of actual domestic trophies, the Premier League.
Arsenal, meanwhile, currently sit sixth - two points off fourth, yes, but also only two points ahead of Liverpool, who most still perceive to be nearer the start than the end of the rebuilding project Brendan Rodgers is overseeing.
As Van Persie's Manchester United beat Nasri's Manchester City on Sunday, did Wenger reflect on their divergent paths? Only the 63-year-old can know.
Arsenal are in a rut, one that has gone on for years with no end in sight. And, while it's unclear whether Wenger is the source of the problem, it's equally unclear whether he has the remedy.
All of which is to say this: Arsenal should do everything they can to tempt Josep 'Pep' Guardiola to become their new manager in the summer.
The north London side are barely mentioned as candidates to hire the sought-after former Barcelona manager - available to return in the summer after he completes a year-long break from the game - yet there is enough reason to believe that, with a persuasive pitch, they can lure one of the Catalan club's greatest sons into bringing his Midas touch to Emirates Stadium.
If Wenger departs first, that is.
While the rumour mill never really stops, four clubs have generally emerged as the strongest suitors for Guardiola's signature. While clubs from Italy and France have been bandied about, Manchester City and Chelsea are believed to head the race - both in their desire to land him and the financial depths to turn his head - with Manchester United also in the mix, should Sir Alex Ferguson retire at the end of the current campaign.
Then there is Bayern Munich, who emerged as an outside shot over the weekend. The Bundesliga is arguably the most vibrant league in Europe currently and, in terms of financial stability, domestic dominance and youth development, the Bavarian club would provide a setup Guardiola would be familiar and comfortable with.
With a natural rival already in situ in Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund, Guardiola would still be presented with a genuine challenge against an ideological brethren - a sporting factor a purist such as he would no doubt be tempted by. But there would also be concerns about the language barrier and any culture shock he may suffer ("If Bayern were to go after Guardiola, they will both have to compromise," Oliver Kahn warned this week).
The Premier League, however, remains the place most believe Guardiola is headed. But there are viable reasons why he might not want any of the three leading jobs being thrust at him.
Most of those crop up at Chelsea - not least of which is the lack of long-term job security, with the likely meddling of owner Roman Abramovich a concern Guardiola would prefer to do without. The Russian clearly wants his man (interim boss Rafa Benitez might claim he has not been told to try and play like Barcelona, but the relentless acquisition of diminutive, ball-playing attackers in the summer - Oscar, Hazard, Marin, Moses - suggests the groundwork was being laid for someone to implement that style at some point) but there is no guarantee he would suddenly develop patience, even with someone he has pursued so ardently.
Then there is the spectre of Jose Mourinho, a figure Guardiola no doubt admires as a manager but has little time for as a showman. Would he really want to go into what remains Mourinho's house, where the fans still cheer his name, and risk constant comparisons with a character he came to detest while in Spain?
Mourinho's presence also hangs over both the potential Manchester jobs. The Portuguese is probably favourite to claim the City post, for a start (should Roberto Mancini fail to win something this season), but if Guardiola were to head to either of the clubs then 'The Special One' would immediately become the odds-on favourite to take over at the other, whenever it came available.
Another symbiotic relationship with Mourinho, tied together by an historic club rivalry, is perhaps the last thing Guardiola would want to expose himself to.
"Having been the chief butt of Mourinho's take-no-prisoners style of psychological warfare for two years, his stomach would churn at the prospect of having to join battle once more with his off-field nemesis," Spain-based journalist John Carlin noted astutely for the Sunday Times last month.
Then there is the word on the street that Guardiola is wary of moving his young family to the north of England. On the one hand that is an increasingly lazy and unfair characterisation of Manchester as a city to live in; on the other, just about any city in the world would be a step down for a man who had just spent serious time in Barcelona and New York (where he is residing for most of his break from the game).
London, however, would provide a similar variety of opportunity to those two great cities for his family - and, if Chelsea looks too toxic, Arsenal could offer an enticing project.
It is not a job Mourinho would be interested in (he is never anything less than a front-runner), yet it is one where great progress can be made - and even the biggest trophies can be won.
Thanks to Wenger the club shares a similar footballing philosophy to that incubated at La Masia ("I like to watch Arsenal play," Guardiola has said in the past) and offers the sort of fertile youth setup that the great manager likes to harness.
Having stabilised the ownership situation and recently agreed a lucrative new sponsorship deal with Emirates Airlines, if Stan Kroenke gives reassurances to Guardiola that money will be available to spend, the 41-year-old may just be presented with enough reason to believe that he can win the biggest prizes in north London.
As the one English club that has garnered his praise more than any other in recent years (he is said to admire Manchester United, but nevertheless as a player turned down the opportunity to sign for them in favour of Brescia), the chance to take on the establishment with a powerful outsider might appeal to such a proud Catalan.
"Arsenal are always in the top, when you compete every season at the top, it is because they are quality," Guardiola said 18 months ago, as he prepared to face them in the Champions League. "For many years they have kept up there, and that is the real merit. Yes, they lack something, but they are a young team."
Guardiola's reputation is beyond reproach right now - but wherever he goes he faces the real risk of diminishing a record of unbelievable success. Considering the continued impressive work of his replacement at Camp Nou, Tito Vilanova, it may yet transpire that the he represented more the decisive refinement of a superior system (with the added benefit of a once-in-a-generation talent called Lionel Messi) than its mastermind.
Nine ways Arsenal can try to persuade Pep
- Club shares a similar footballing ideology.
- A solid infrastructure is in place.
- A vibrant youth culture available to harness.
- Money available to spend.
- A midfield to build around (Cazorla, Wilshere, Arteta).
- A great city to live (and raise kids) in.
- No 'Mourinho Effect' to worry about.
- The freedom (and time) to implement his ideas.
- The chance to bring success, not continue it.
Regardless, Arsenal offers a challenge that the other Premier League suitors cannot - real room for growth and improvement - and the time to implement his ideas that perhaps only United could match.
If he can bring his winning edge, Arsenal could become the Barcelona of England. As he has said previously: "When they [Arsenal] win the first time, they will change the mentality.
"They will realise they are good."
There are no guarantees Guardiola would take the Arsenal job - but the club has nothing to lose by making their pitch. You buy a ticket for the lottery, you just might win.
Obviously, with Wenger still currently entrenched, courting Guardiola would create a difficult situation with the Frenchman. But the existing club-manager relationship no longer appears to be working to full effect - and so Arsenal are within their rights to proactively move on if their manager will not do so first (Abramovich takes this free-market right to the other extreme).
Wenger has recently suggested he will walk away at the end of the season, although only obliquely. Giving Wenger the time and space to come to his own decision about his future would be preferable, but by then the winning lottery ticket may have been drawn.
Leaving the decision to Wenger would be the honourable thing to do. But where, exactly, has being 'honourable' (and prudent, not to mention pragmatic and conservative) got Arsenal over the last seven years - and what have they really got to show for it?