Commentary

Ajax way can be right for clubs like Arsenal, United

In his final years at Arsenal, it was gently put to Arsene Wenger that the club had been missing a trick.

So many great players from the recent past, with so much experience and understanding of the Arsenal way, had been left on the outside, looking in. Shouldn't the club be looking to tap that knowledge and get them on board?

Wenger said he liked the principle and was pleased that Jens Lehmann, Patrick Vieira, Mikel Arteta, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Thierry Henry and others were looking to embark on coaching careers, but that appointments must not be based on sentiment.

When Arteta retired as a player in 2016, there were discussions about appointing him to a senior coaching role with a view to grooming him as a future Arsenal manager but Wenger declared that "you cannot create artificial positions". Arteta was then offered a senior coaching job at Manchester City, where he quickly became one of Pep Guardiola's most trusted and influential assistants.

Certain former players have been appointed at Arsenal though - Per Mertesacker is the academy manager, Ljungberg the Under-23 head coach - but mostly the club's moves to reintegrate the old boys have been short-lived.

There is, however, a definite trend towards the reintegration of former players in a bid to recover the values, identity and direction that have been lost at certain Premier League clubs.

In many ways, it (Ajax) is the perfect vision for a football club: you develop your own players, they break into the first team, they win trophies, give their all and then, years later, as the wheel turns full circle, they return and use their wisdom and experience to try to help inspire the next generation to success.

When Petr Cech departs Arsenal at the end of the season, upon hanging up his gloves, it is likely to be for Chelsea, where he has been earmarked for a technical director role.

Manchester United, having already appointed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager, have spoken to Peter Schmeichel, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Darren Fletcher as they contemplate their own strategic overhaul.

There is a desperate need to modernise, create a clear, unified vision and support it with the expertise that has been missing from these three huge clubs whose hierarchies, in different ways, have taken their eye off the ball for far too long.

For clubs like United, Arsenal and Chelsea, a desire to revive those values and get back to basics, tapping the knowledge of esteemed former players, is surely not just understandable but overdue.

After all, have we not spent the past months and particularly the past week lauding Ajax for a resurgence built on the expertise of former players?

They have Edwin van der Sar as chief executive, Marc Overmars as director of football, Danny Blind as a director, Aron Winter and Richard Witschge on the coaching staff, Michael Reiziger, Winston Bogarde and John Heitinga coaching the club's youngsters.

It is all part of the vision that Johan Cruyff proposed when he returned to Ajax as an adviser in 2011. Eight years on, a young Ajax team are 90 minutes away from their first Champions League final since 1996.

In many ways, it is the perfect vision for a football club: you develop your own players, they break into the first team, they win trophies, give their all and then, years later, as the wheel turns full circle, they return and use their wisdom and experience to try to help inspire the next generation to success.

The big question here would be whether, in looking to Mertesacker, Ljungberg, Cech, Paulo Ferreira, Michael Carrick and others, Arsenal, Chelsea and United have identified the right calibre of individuals to make a genuine difference.

As with anything in football, though, it can work only with the right individuals in the right positions - and if there is genuine commitment to doing it as part of a long-term vision, rather than simply because it sounds like a good idea.

THE TIMES, LONDON


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 05, 2019, with the headline 'Ajax way can be right for clubs like Arsenal, United'. Print Edition | Subscribe