Adam White

Where to, Boss?

Adam White
Where to, Boss?

This article can also be found in the first issue of Onside Inzaghi along with much more on Europe's top 5 leagues.

While Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City’s philosophies are clearly defined, Arsenal and Chelsea found themselves in a state of flux at the end of the season after long periods of, if not stability in Chelsea’s case, but of an obvious trajectory - positive or otherwise. As a result, both Arsenal and Chelsea face pivotal choices on not just in who their next coach should be but what that appointment will mean for the club’s direction in the longer term. The choices made this summer could define each club for the next decade or more.

Unai Emery’s appointment at the Emirates has been tinged with anticlimax. The reaction has  barely fallen on the positive side of lukewarm. Emery, although a meticulous and passionate coach, struggles to meet many a fan’s expectations. Although inexperienced, prohibitively as it turned out, Mikel Arteta, Thierry Henry or Patrick Vieira would have been cast as a returning hero with a young, fresh and potentially innovate perspective on coaching while carrying the same perhaps misguided promise of similar appointments at other major clubs. For every Pep Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane there’re several Clarence Seedorfs. Nevertheless, excitement would have reigned.

The former PSG coach also fails to fulfill the criteria of the second option, in not being a genuine ‘elite’ level manager (admittedly, a term more synonymous with name than actual quality) such as Carlo Ancelotti, now of Napoli, which would bring the expectation of immediate success - again an exciting proposition. Nor is Emery’s appointment reminiscent of Arsene Wenger’s arrival in 1996, one completely out of the blue which as a result is arguably now part of the club’s DNA given his initial successes.

Reported discussions with Zeljko Buvac, Jurgen Klopp’s assistant at Liverpool, brought the excitement of the unknown and the hope that the club could conjure another managerial miracle. Emery is none of these things. Meanwhile, compounding the issue, PSG’s limp exits from the Champions League under Emery heavily colour the perception of the Spaniard from a Premier League fan’s perspective, amplifying the sense of disappointment.

More importantly however, Emery’s arrival alludes to the direction that Arsenal, at board level, want to take and although supporters may be a little underwhelmed his signing makes sense. In a myriad of ways, Arsene Wenger has come to define Arsenal. While Arsenal are a historic club with generations of success, Wenger oversaw the club during the game’s biggest era of upheaval and evolution - an evolution, in England at least, heavily influenced by the Frenchman. George Graham’s Arsenal of the late 80s and early 90s is virtually unrecognizable now, as is much of 90s football. Arsenal have only been Wenger’s Arsenal in the modern era of globalisation, cutting edge training methods and strict diets and as a result Emery fits what is now the Arsenal mould, defined by Wenger’s revelatory stewardship.

Despite his short two year spell in Paris being characterised by gargantuan transfer deals and runaway player power, Emery was able to bring on some exciting young talents. His handling of centre back Presnel Kimpembe, now PSG’s best, and Giovanni Lo Celso in midfield, both 22, underlines not just his commitment to youth but also to development in a wider context. While many bigger clubs may experiment with young players from time to time, a commitment to improving players individually across the squad is something that characterises Wenger’s coaching policy. There’s a sense at Arsenal, however (un)wisely, that the moulding of younger players is a very long term process and that they (Wenger) will stubbornly stick with those players in which faith has been placed, almost disregarding form or suitability, mirroring Emery’s persistence with Lo Celso in particular.

There is a thoughtfulness and an intelligence to the way Emery conduct’s himself, much as there was to Wenger. Although amplified by the fact that English football historically has done the opposite, most notably by the 70s and 80s’ blood-and-thunder style and tactical uniformity, the feeling that Emery intellectualizes coaching and football itself is a strong one. He told the Guardian in 2015 that he will spend 12 hours on video per game, leading former player Joaquín to joke, “he’s obsessed by football, it’s practically an illness.” Emery also ticks the box of looking to play expansive and attacking, if not gung-ho, football, just as Wenger and his strong gaulic contingent brought a quintessentially French sense of footballing finesce around the turn of the century.

Given the similarities between Wenger and Emery both in style and demeanour, although Emery will be far more animated on the touchline, it seems Arsenal have doubled down on the ideas that have made the club what it is, philosophies ingrained over Wenger’s tenure. While having flirted with adopting a more superclub-esque persona, Emery’s arrival underlines that Wenger’s (Arsenal’s) clearly defined ideology is here to stay. Chelsea’s direction on the other hand may not be so clear cut.

After Roman Abramovich’s purchase in 2003, Chelsea became the archetypal ‘new money’ club. In an age where tidal waves of foreign investment have become commonplace, even if cash injections are now a little more considered than the brash way Chelsea’s side was revolutionised, Chelsea were the first modern example of such a revolutionary change and led the way for Manchester City, PSG and others. However, that policy is now defined by PSG’s huge investment in the playing squad in order to compete season after season, something that was more successful for Chelsea but has slowly started to evolve in recent times.

Although turning a profit on players has long been a component of Chelsea’s (and many others) project, their next managerial move could shift the club in the direction taken by Monaco in recent years after initial eye-catching moves for Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho. Where Chelsea’s player development is secondary to the first team’s success, Monaco’s now intrinsically link the two.

Monaco are a club working in cycles. They sign developing prospects for comparatively small fees, often from further down the Ligue 1 table, develop those players and slowly build a team to compete in the latter stages of the Champions League and at the sharp end of Ligue 1. Once that team reaches its peak and achieve their goals the key players are then sold off at a huge profit and the cycle starts again. Such an exodus has occurred twice in recent seasons. The departures of Kylian Mbappe, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva and co last summer after their glorious title win amounted to 300 million euros worth of sales. The previous cycle ended after a run to the Champions League quarter finals in 2015 and the profitable losses of Anthony Martial, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Layvin Kurzawa and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco.

Chelsea’s (ab)use of the loan system has been prominent for sometime, their tally of loaned players pushed 40 this season, and mirrors Monaco’s process of player sales despite representing something of side business. Except in Chelsea’s case those promising players who prove themselves can be used to supplement the first team. Even over recent summer transfer windows Chelsea have quietly turned some sizeable profits.

Nathan Ake’s 20m move to Bournemouth after three loan spells having been signed as a 15 year old from Feyenoord for £230,000, Bertrand Traore’s £8.8m move to Lyon having signed from Auxerre as a teenager via a pair of loan moves to Holland, Christian Atsu joining Newcastle for £6.5m after a £3.5m move from Porto after 5 loan deals and Thorgan Hazard’s £5.5m move to Borussia Monchengladbach following two loan spells having signed for around £350,000 from Lens as a 19 year old are all examples of a well developed, very profitable system of recruitment away from the first team. Those four players share just 17 league appearances. This is not to mention profits made in the short term on more established names such as Ramires, Oscar, Mo Salah, Romelu Lukaku, Juan Mata, David Luiz, Kevin De Bruyne and Andre Schurrle.

Although the club’s big spending policy has yet to truly ease up, a combined £185m was spent on Antonio Rudiger, Bakayoko, Alvaro Morata, Davide Zappacosta and Danny Drinkwater last summer, looking ahead to next season and beyond however, Chelsea are faced with a choice, one to which their next manager will be crucial. Does the club, and notably Roman Abramovich, have the desire to continue competing in the same way as the budgets and transfer fees of the Manchester clubs, PSG and the Spanish giants becomes increasingly inflated? If not, perhaps giving their side project more prominence could be beneficial rather than putting faith in the instant success that Antonio Conte, Carlo Ancelotti and Jose Mourinho promised upon their arrivals.

Should Conte leave, Chelsea, as many bigger clubs will do in the coming years and as Arsenal did, face a decision between the promise of instant success and buying into a ‘project’ style of management. Perhaps at least in part because there is a sense that coaches now fall, very broadly, into one of those two camps. Although he seems likely to stay in Italy, Juventus coach Max Allegri. or even favourite Laurent Blanc, would represent consistency for Chelsea, falling at the end of the spectrum defined by immediate results, one also populated by Conte, Mourinho and Ancelotti. While Allegri has superbly adapted to turnover in his squad in recent years and stayed competitive in both domestic and european fronts, his squad has long been characterised, perhaps out of necessity, by experience and effectivity rather than youth and compelling play. Although Allegri has taken issue with negative comparison between Juve and Napoli’s styles of late.

Despite his age (59) and a chain smoking, banker backstory being at odds with the comparatively clean cut, fresh faced look of Thomas Tuchel, Julian Nagelsmann and others who represent the other end of the managerial spectrum, Maurizio Sarri would be fit perfectly into a change in tact at Stamford Bridge. The Italian is a coach first and foremost, intent on improving his players and focusing on tactical awareness and intricacies while happily leaving much of the recruitment to others and working with what he has. Leonardo Jardim of Monaco would provide a similar if less charismatic presence.

Chelsea have the opportunity to provide a bigger stage and more tailored coaching to the young prospects they sign. Given such opportunities perhaps the abilities and, by extension, transfer fees of Traore, Thorgan Hazard and co would have hit even greater heights much as Mbappe and Berardo Silva’s did under Jardim at Monaco, as opposed to having to fend for themselves on loan. Monaco nevertheless still place emphasis on remaining successful in Ligue 1, which equates to making the Champions league places, every season whatever their turnover of playing staff. An achievable goal in Ligue 1 for Monaco but a sizeable task for Chelsea given the competitiveness of the Premier League’s top 6 and a potential sticking point.

Where Arsenal have decided to double down on the ‘Wengerism’ that has characterised the club for more than two decades in appointing a more modern and nuanced like-minded coach in Unai Emery, seemingly steering clear of the big-spending superclub ethos that has defined their London neighbours over the last 15 years. Chelsea are faced with the same dilemma in reverse. The appointment of a ‘big name’ coach in tandem with continued attempts to compete with the likes of PSG in the transfer market would seem to equal the redoubling of their own entrenched philosophy, Whereas the appointment of a coach akin to Maurizio Sarri, as now seems likely, could mark a shift towards a Monaco style development system turned up to 11. Either way, both clubs will be looking to rid themselves of the sense disappointment that has accompanied underwhelming league seasons. Neither club finished inside the top four, it is clear improvements can be made.

by Adam White 








Image: Russell C