The man himself has moved quickly to scotch the rumours, and the bookmakers consider him little more than a 10-1 shot, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if Arsene Wenger was named as the next Barcelona manager? Turning 68 this year, this grand old statesman of world football has one more big job in him. Is there anything bigger than Barca?
Wenger told reporters this week that he “was not looking for jobs in other clubs,” insisting that his preference is to stay at Arsenal. Well-sourced reports indicate that Arsenal’s preference is for Wenger to stay, too.
Indeed, if it wasn’t for those pesky fans with their unreasonable expectations of an occasional title challenge in return for the eye-watering expense of supporting the club, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But after years of simmering tension in the stands, this season has brought a new level of dissent. Entirely normal, reasonable Arsenal fans are now reaching a point where they’re desperate for a dignified end to the reign of a man they revere. And this would be a perfect exit strategy.
This isn’t just sentimentality at work. Yes, it would be a lovely job for Wenger, an intelligent, likeable character who deserves to see out the final years of his career in the sunshine, scooping up trophies. But it’s more than that. Wenger would be a good fit for Barcelona too, perhaps more so than the other front-runners.
The Catalans are in a strange place, slowing ebbing towards a transition that will be as unsettling and dangerous as any experienced by any club in recent years. Lionel Messi is 30 this summer, while his contract expires next summer. In spite of feverish speculation to the contrary, you’d expect him to re-sign before long, but he isn’t going to get any better at football now. He is going to tire, he is going to slow and he is going to pick up more injuries. And when he does finally leave, it will mark a new and apprehensive era for the club. That will be the time for a younger manager with new ideas to make his mark.
But Messi hasn’t gone yet. He’ll need to be carefully managed in the autumn of his career, and he wields great power at the club. Earlier this year, a club director was sacked for outrageously suggesting that Messi was aided in some way by the presence of other excellent footballers on the team. Madness. Everyone knows that Messi would score just as many goals up front for Sunderland, feeding off the incisive passing of Seb Larsson and Darron Gibson.
Clearly, Barcelona isn’t ready to be shaken awake by a headstrong young manager with a point to prove about the importance of high-intensity gegenpressing. That moment will come in time. This is a club that needs wisdom, experience and a steady hand.
Wenger, it is fair to say, is not known for his tactical micromanaging. You won’t see him on his haunches in the technical area, ushering his full-backs nine inches further forward. He sets out a shape that barely changes; he encourages his players to push up and to express themselves. And then he lets them get on with it.
In these final days of a golden generation, do you think that Messi, Andres Iniesta, Javier Mascherano and the others want to be barked at by a coltish young tracksuit with something to prove? Or do you think they want to be encouraged and reassured by a soft-spoken gentleman who looks like he might otherwise be saving the banking system from collapse?
Wenger’s time at Arsenal is drawing to a close. It’s sad that he won’t go out on top, but he has at least stapled them to the wall somewhere near the top. More pertinently, he has changed the club forever. He recast them in his own image, lifting up a team that was known for cynical, defensive football in a tight North London home and placing them back down in a vast, shining arena renowned for their cavalier spirit. His work is complete. He should leave with dignity and respect.
And remember that we would do well not to take Wenger’s words as gospel. After all, there’s scarcely a manager in the world whose eventual move from one club to another hasn’t been prefaced by public declarations of, “I’m flattered, but I have a job to do here.” Even now, he may be in his office, surreptitiously swiping through Spanish real estate on his smartphone.
Wenger told reporters on Thursday that the “sacrifice of his life” made him feel like “a football priest.” Well, he needs to ask himself this: Is there a bigger, more spectacular cathedral than the Nou Camp?
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.