Arsenal, Gazidis face herculean task of replacing Wenger. Can they do it?
LONDON -- Ivan Gazidis can prepare for some sleepless nights ahead. The Arsenal chief executive is now tasked with executing the job he was hired in 2009 to plan for but which had been an abstract notion until now.
Arsene Wenger has been "Mr. Arsenal" for nearly 22 years and there have been times when it seemed as though the Frenchman would go on forever as manager, yet the day that Gazidis has perhaps dreaded has now arrived. Wenger is leaving at the end of the season and Gazidis, the 53-year-old Cambridge graduate who helped launch Major League Soccer in the United States, is the man who will identify and appoint his successor.
Good luck with that, Ivan. It will be a much tougher challenge than you could ever imagine. That said, Sunday's encounter with West Ham United at the Emirates may be perfectly timed for Gazidis and the Arsenal hierarchy as it will provide a stark reminder of how succession-planning can go badly wrong.
David Moyes will patrol the touchline for West Ham, less than five years after signing a six-year contract as Sir Alex Ferguson's successor at Manchester United. Moyes is now in his third job since being hired and fired by United just 10 months after taking charge. The Old Trafford club are now on their third manager, Jose Mourinho, since Ferguson stepped down in May 2013.
United had a plan to replace Ferguson. We know this because Ferguson spoke in the years prior to his retirement about the strategic work behind the scenes, making key appointments on his coaching staff that would ensure a smooth transition. The club's owners, the Glazer family, and the board of directors then turned to Moyes, citing him as Ferguson's natural heir and a man cut from the same Glaswegian cloth as United's greatest-ever manager.
But it all went horribly wrong and the succession plan was quickly exposed as a convenient cover story, with it subsequently emerging that Moyes was actually the club's sixth choice behind Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone.
But Arsenal and Gazidis now have their Ferguson moment and they would be wise to learn from the mistakes made by United. They need a plan and they need a blueprint: a clear strategy for identifying exactly who they need to fill the void left by Wenger. And Gazidis, speaking at the Emirates on Friday evening following the announcement of Wenger's planned departure earlier in the day, is clearly bullish about the task ahead.
"The process starts today," said Gazidis. "But it's important that we continue the football values that Arsene has instilled -- somebody who can continue to play progressive, exciting football.
"I also think there is a significant piece in that of how the candidate represents the club. Another value is young players. We have a lot of players coming through, so giving youth a chance is also very important.
"It feels very, very big but tomorrow we have to start thinking about how we move forward."
Already, Gazidis is in danger of falling into the trap that befell United. They also wanted a manager to replicate the traditions of his predecessor but sometimes, you cannot replace the irreplaceable. Gazidis's apparent criteria would appear to rule out the likes of Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, whose football is more mechanical and direct than Wenger's but is equally a winning, successful style. The same would apply to Rafael Benitez, a proven manager at the highest level but one whose approach is more about substance than style.
It perhaps points more towards Joachim Low or Brendan Rodgers, two coaches who have been able to win with flair and style at the same time as giving youth a chance. But then came another pointer from Gazidis that paved the way for a more risky appointment such as Eddie Howe, Sean Dyche or even Patrick Vieira.
"We have to be open-mind and brave," said Gazidis, when asked about how he will select the new manager. "Arsene wasn't necessarily on a lot of people's radar when he arrived, so we need to be bold and get the person we believe is the right person.
"But the most important thing is to make the right appointment rather than a quick one. You don't find a replacement for Arsene Wenger. We will find a new path forward."
But do Arsenal have the people to make the right decision? This is a club that has not appointed a new manager for 22 years, so are Arsenal facing a turbulent period ahead?
"I don't believe it heralds a new era of instability at the club," said Gazidis, insistent. "We have a tremendous amount of experience in the club. I have been in soccer for 25 years, Raul [Sanllehi] went through five or six coaching changes at Barcelona, Sven [Mislintat] a number at Dortmund and some on the board are old enough to have been through Arsenal changes.
"Stan and Josh [Kroenke] been through that in different sports too, so I doubt there is a more experienced group in terms of handling changes. But none of us has been through a change of the size of this one."
That last part is why Gazidis may struggle to get to sleep at night. Only now will he realise the job he has to pull off.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_