Arsene Wenger knew four weeks ago that his 22-year reign at Arsenal was over when it was made clear to him that he would be asked to leave at the end of the season.
The club and close friends have been urging him to accept the inevitable and allow for an appropriate farewell as well as afford Arsenal time to recruit his successor, which is likely to be either Luis Enrique or Joachim Low, though Max Allegri, Brendan Rodgers and Leonardo Jardim are also being considered.
The past few weeks have been spent ensuring that the news, known only by a few key figures, did not leak out so that Wenger could make the announcement.
But the manager would have seen out his contract until 2020 if given the chance to do so and is expected to receive the final year’s pay of his deal, which could amount to £10million. Wenger has made it clear to friends that he expects to work elsewhere next season and prefers to stay involved day-to-day at his new club, rather than become a director of football.
The focus at Arsenal is now on recruiting his replacement and Raul Sanllehi, the new head of football relations, is taking a lead role, meaning his preference for Enrique, with whom he worked at Barcelona, makes the Spaniard the favourite.
The logistics of appointing Low, popular with Arsenal executives, seem to count against him, with the German national team manager defending the World Cup this summer and potentially out of action until July 15, just four weeks before the start of the new Premier League season. He also has two more years left on his contract with the German FA.
Wenger has cut a beleaguered figure at the club this season as a series of appointments left him bereft of natural allies. As well as Sanllehi, chief scout Sven Mislintat, contracts negotiator Huss Fahmy and stats guru Jaeson Rosenfeld are the new power brokers at the club, led by chief executive Ivan Gazidis.
Their regular meetings at Highbury House in recent weeks have not involved Wenger and were the clearest sign to staff that the manager’s time was over.
Wenger was aware that at least two board members had been arguing for his removal even last year and the decision of Josh Kroenke, son of owner Stan, to move temporarily to London in January and February and spend his time visiting different departments of the club was also seen as the preparation for the end as he convinced his father, who was responsible for Wenger getting a two-year deal last summer, that change now had to come.
But when the change was actually announced by Wenger, there was little of the expected emotion. It was shortly after 9am on Friday when he called his core staff together for their pre-training meeting. Then came the news. Even though many had seen it coming, the confirmation was clearly a shock. There was a stunned silence broken by a typically matter-of-fact Wenger saying: ‘Right. Let’s organise today’s training.’ He then left to break the news to his players.
Life will go on at Arsenal, but it will never quite feel the same again. Already players and staff are adjusting to the new order.
While Wenger focuses on an emotionally-charged home game with West Ham today and an enormously-important Europa League semi-final with Atletico Madrid on Thursday — which determines whether Arsenal can qualify for the Champions League — the club’s executives are working to appoint his successor.
Enrique, who won the treble of Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey at Barcelona, rejuvanted the squad in 2014-15. The team looked jaded and somewhat lost under Tata Martino the season before and so that job is not dissimilar to the task at Arsenal.
Enrique immediately improved their fitness levels and brought a clear tactical structure, based on Barca’s passing game which Gazidis has made clear is essential for any new coach.
Low remains another popular choice. He fits the Germanic culture at the club, with Mislintat now head of recruitment, Per Mertesacker the new academy manager and Mesut Ozil the star player. However, the time may be wrong for Low to step back into club management. With his World Cup commitments it would be asking a lot of him to roll straight into such an enormous transition at Arsenal.
Enrique, currently on sabbatical, is in pole position as he is ready to start work now. However, Gazidis was insisting on Friday that it was more important to make the right decision rather than a quick decision.
As such, Monaco’s Jardim, Juventus’ Allegri and Celtic’s Rodgers will also be considered.
Certainly, change is coming all around at Arsenal. Club owner Stan Kroenke, 70, had been Wenger’s guarantee of a job in the past, yet now it is son Josh, 37, who plays an increasingly influential role.
He now also looks like the coming man at Arsenal where a board of directors, which is due an overhaul. Many believe he will grow into being club chairman.