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Rodgers to Arsenal

A match made in heaven or hell?

Richard Cann

Stability. Continuity. Two words which seem to have come to summarise the Holy Grail for football clubs in England, fuelling a desire to find a manager who can create an empire built on steady growth or perpetual excellence. It is what prompted a misguided Manchester United to appoint the dour and wholly unqualified David Moyes in 2013 on an almost unprecedented six year deal, a man who they believed had the same personal qualities as the genius he replaced. Unfortunately he did not have the professional ability to match, and the powers that be at Old Trafford learnt a valuable lesson. Stability is only desirable if it brings achievement and, in fact, requires constant evolution, as Sir Alex demonstrated. Perpetual inadequacy without accountability or attempt to evolve is footballing purgatory.

Arsenal have enjoyed almost unprecedented stability, with Arsène Wenger now in his 22nd year at The Gunners. But after the initial innovation and success that followed his appointment as a relative unknown (at least on these shores) straight from the J-League, the manager, team, club and fans have long since sunk deep into that purgatory. A failure to challenge himself or evolve as English football has caught him up and sped on by has long since left the Frenchman a lame duck manager, capable only of perpetual mediocrity, with a penchant for FA Cups – now a second class competition for the Premier League’s behemoths. While the club was competing in the Champions League that was enough for his employers, but boos at the Emirates, raging fans on YouTube and testy AGMs have become the annual norm. After failing to qualify for Europe’s premier competition last season Wenger was remarkably given a new two year contract, a demonstration of how stability can bring remarkable short-sightedness and an irrational fear of change. However, with Arsenal exiled in sixth in the Premier League and lurching from one abject failure to the next it finally seems as if the club may be willing to act and put everyone connected with them out of their misery.

For the first time, the end feels like it is genuinely nigh.

With an expectation that Wenger’s departure is simply a matter of time the rumour mill has whirred into action. A host of names have been proposed for the job, based largely on reputation rather than suitability for the job. Thomas Tuchel, Joachim Löw, Diego Simeone, Leonardo Jardim and Carlo Ancelotti are the most notable names to be linked, a Who’s Who of managers du jour, big names for what is undoubtedly a huge job, both in terms of prestige and the task ahead. All have experience and desirable qualities, but their coaching philosophies wildly vary and all also come with their own potential weaknesses. How do Arsenal want to develop from here? Do they want to continue as aesthetes or follow a more gritty path? Many Gooners could be forgiven for now craving the latter.

Perhaps the most left-field candidate currently part of the debate is Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers. The Irishman is, it would appear, the continuity candidate, the most likely, in theory, to bring the least upheaval and offer the most stability. He knows the Premier League, the players he would inherit and is committed to his teams playing expansive, attacking, visually appealing football. He would undoubtedly jump at a second chance at an elite English club and is unlikely to rock the boat. Personality wise he is measured and calm, no more prone to outburst than the man he would replace, an ideologue with a significant ego who can drive fans to distraction with his repetitious post-defeat excuses and mantras. However, whilst Wenger can sometimes be self-depreciating, Rodgers takes himself incredibly seriously, perhaps trying too hard in recent years to sound as wise as Bill Shankly or Jock Stein. The result has been far more David Brent.

It is open to debate as to whether Rodgers has the pedigree to justify being given the Arsenal job. The evidence that we have is contradictory. Appointed Liverpool manager on the back of a promising spell at Swansea City, the former Chelsea coach did not initially pull up any trees at Anfield. In his first season the club finished seventh in the Premier League, an improvement of only one place on the previous season, and suffered an embarrassing FA Cup defeat at the hands of Oldham. However, in his second year Liverpool exploded, scoring 101 league goals and coming agonisingly close to winning the title before being denied by a deeply traumatic late collapse. The forward line of Suárez, Sterling, Coutinho and Sturridge purred and Rodgers seemed to have arrived as an elite level manager, positive and tactically flexible. However, with talisman Suárez leaving for Barcelona, a relatively poor record of acquisitions caught up with him, and Liverpool slumped to sixth the following season and exited the Champions League at the group stage. By October of 2015, with the club in tenth place and with only one win in nine games, Rodgers was out of a job, having to rebuild his reputation.

At Celtic he has, to a degree, done that, as much as anyone can in the one-horse race that is the modern-day SPL. As Ronny Deila discovered, winning the title is not enough, with style, level of dominance and European performance paramount. Where the former two requirements are concerned Rodgers has passed with flying colours, winning the 2016/17 title with 106 points, a record, and undefeated, playing attacking, expansive football. Victories in the Scottish FA and League Cups brought a domestic treble for only the fourth time in Celtic’s history, and that dominance has continued into this current season. The unbeaten run finally came to an end at 65 matches, another domestic record. However, in Europe, Rodgers has presided over a mixed bag, much as he did at Liverpool.  Notable results, such as two draws against Manchester City, have been balanced out by thrashings by Barcelona and PSG and questions still remain as to whether the Irishman can balance his desire to be positive on the pitch with a need to remain compact at the back when facing high-quality opposition. It is defensive and mental frailty that has been Arsenal’s Achilles heal for what seems like an eternity, since Tony Adams, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and co exited stage left.

Appointing Rodgers would, therefore, represent a significant risk. His appeal would appear to be that he would provide some degree of continuity and stability, offering a similar footballing vision without the need for significant acclimatisation. He is the devil The Gunners know. Whilst his transfer market record at Liverpool was patchy at best, Arsenal are finally putting in place recruitment structures that remove the sort of autonomy in the market that Wenger has enjoyed, although Rodgers would no doubt hope that there would be no repeat of the infamous Anfield transfer committee. Stability may be alluring to the hierarchy at The Emirates, but as outlined above, its desirability is dubious at best. Apart from one Suárez-fuelled near miss at Liverpool, Rodgers has yet to prove himself conclusively at an elite level and whilst his teams can be dominant at their best they have sometimes struggled when truly tested. Rodgers dug himself a hole at Anfield and was unable to claw his way out. Stability and familiarity may feel desirable, but as Sir Alex Ferguson demonstrated, continuity of success requires evolution and new ideas. As difficult as the decision may be, Arsenal may be better served taking a chance and following a different path. Brendan Rodgers may, therefore, not be the right man to guide them in the right direction.

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