Arsène Wenger is still looking for his new challenge.
Perhaps surprisingly, his name has become the bookmakers’ favourite to replace Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, following his recent claims that Los Blancos approached him about a job in the past.
As one of the most prominent positions in world football, becoming the Los Blancos manager would certainly be an enticing proposition.
For a pragmatic manager fondly referred to as the professor, he may choose his next step with his head rather than his heart. At 68-years-old, it would appear now is the ideal time for him to grasp just such an opportunity if it does indeed present itself.
As a self-confessed football addict, he’s unlikely to retire soon and, that being the case, another working sabbatical could well prove incredibly beneficial to his chances of success in the Spanish capital.
You can read more of RealSport’s analysis on the potential successors to Zidane HERE.
The pragmatic approach
What may initially seem like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity actually recurs, on average, every 17 months. There have been seven managers in charge of Real Madrid in the last ten years, just one reason underpinning the ‘pressure cooker’ stigma attached to it.
The next manager has to have an instant impact. They need to bring success rapidly to the team who have won the last three Champions League titles.
What complicates this matter further, they will also need to overhaul key parts of the squad who are suffering from the ravages of time.
While not exactly a poisoned chalice, it will be a hefty challenge to take on. This is exactly what the Frenchman claims to want from his next role, a role also located outside the Premier League, again befitting Wenger’s criteria.
Wenger has consistently been a long-term player, though and time is one thing running against him at this particular job.
An unpredictable choice
The Premier League may have a historic claim for being the most competitive top-flight in domestic football, however, unpredictability is not part of its current make-up.
For example, Atletico Madrid’s La Liga triumph in the 2013/14 season is the only time one of the Spanish “big two” haven’t claimed the domestic title during the last 14 Spanish campaigns. Real Madrid, furthermore, have only won two of the last ten titles.
When it comes to unpredictability, Japan’s J1 League is up there near the top.
There have been seven different title winners in the last eight years, with three other sides claiming the runner-up spot during this same period.
With 15 games played in their current season, the team leading the way by nine points is the same team which finished 15th of 18 clubs last season.
Furthermore, the team trailing them in second place finished 13th last year and have never placed higher than fourth throughout their history.
Now that’s competition.
A competitive edge
With a much more level playing field across the division, the J1 League allows tactical advantages to be more effectively deployed by a manager.
After 22 years in Islington, Wenger has become ingrained in a singular, almost stubborn, mentality in recent years.
While he has utilised different formations and approaches with the Gunners throughout the last season, these choices felt more reactive than pro-active.
Whichever approach his team took on the pitch, they always seemed to be undermined by a lack of midfield solidity and a lack of defensive resilience coursing through the core of the team.
It will be argued that a move to Japan is a step down in quality, a move below the level which Wenger deserves to operate at.
It could, however, allow him to strip back to the fundamentals of the game and refine his style and philosophies.
Growing in stature
For anyone who believes that the J1 League represents a poor standard of football, this isn’t necessarily true. There has been a strengthening of Japanese football lately and it’s currently in the foothills of a new peak.
The Chinese Super League may have drawn the limelight in recent years, but all that glitters isn’t necessarily laden with gold. The big money transfers and high wages paid by Chinese clubs may have garnered European headlines, but they aren’t Asia’s dominant league.
Last season, Urawa Red Diamonds became the first Japanese team to claim the Asian Champions League in ten years. They also did so in style and were deserved winners of the trophy.
In 2016, Kashima Antlers made it to the final of FIFA’s Club World Cup, putting two goals past Real Madrid before finally succumbing to defeat in extra time.
With the likes of Andres Iniesta and quite possibly Fernando Torres joining the burgeoning foreign ranks this summer, there appears to be a renaissance sweeping the competition which hasn’t been seen since Zico and Dunga signed up to play there during the 1990s.
A journey for love
In December 1994, Wenger left behind the corruption of the French league, looking to cleanse his soul with a new challenge. What he found at Nagoya Grampus Eight restored his belief in the beautiful game.
He may not be leaving behind any such turmoil in moving out of Islington, but he has suffered a sustained character attack for several seasons now.
Win, lose or draw with Madrid, their next manager will likely face a similar level of criticism from at least some quarters.
Wenger certainly has the nous and aura to step into the role, but he will need to be at the peak of his powers to do it successfully.
If there is any trace of a hangover from his 22-year love affair with the Gunners, he should consider taking a step off the beaten path to give himself space to breathe, reflect and re-focus. Doing so in the fresh air of an unblemished and challenging league just may prove the perfect tonic.
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