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Beef and Rice: Arsene's never-changing menu

Even if Pat Rice retires at the end of the season, editor Gary Parkinson doesn't expect major changes at Arsenal

You can tell it's spring: Pat Rice is set to retire. Just like last April, the newspapers have been reporting that the Arsenal assistant manager will step down at the end of the season after 42 years of service.

Arsene Wenger apparently managed to talk him out of it last season and it would be foolhardy for the Arsenal board to buy the carriage clock just yet. Rice is Arsenal to his aching bones, Wenger is a persuasive man and the Gunners coaching hierachy changes at glacial speed.

Having been a youth team coach since 1984, former Gunners apprentice Rice (who played for the club for 14 years, amassing north of 500 appearances) was caretaker manager until Wenger arrived, promptly making 'Mr Arsenal' his No.2. Rice has been at his side ever since.

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Meanwhile, up in the stands, there's another key sidekick, appointed as first-team coach mere months after the Frenchman's arrival and there ever since. Not many outside Arsenal could name him, and more than a few fans would struggle to place him, but he's Wenger's main sounding-board.

Beefy, balding Bosnian Boro Primorac is Wenger's tactical lieutenant, watching from on high in the posh seats and conferring with the manager at half-time before a thorough post-match debrief. Wenger is obviously not a man given to rapid change, but it's said that if anyone has his ear, it's Primorac.

The pair met when Wenger was managing Monaco and Primorac in charge of Valenciennes. When Primorac heard that his players had been offered bribes by Marseille, he spoke out in public and later gave evidence in court. Finding himself ostracised in France, he was welcomed by Wenger to Nagoya Grampus Eight and followed him to Highbury in March 1997 as first-team coach, a job he retains to this day.

The difference between first-team coach and assistant manager causes confusion among many fans, and for that matter quite a few footballers. The assistant is the No.2 â the boss's sidekick, usually housed in an adjacent office or even sharing the same cell, cooking up ideas with the boss deep under the main stand. The chief coach usually puts those ideas into reality, striding proprietorially round the training ground and attempting to turn theory into good, hard practice.

However, different managers use different structures, and at Arsenal the majority of training sessions are held by Wenger himself, with Primorac in attendance. In effect, Arsenal don't need a replacement for Rice, because he's already there: to a great extent, Primorac is the No.2.

That's not to say Pat Rice's role hasn't been important. Upon Wenger's arrival as an astonishing alien â the first foreigner to coach the club, with his fancy don't-eat-chips ways â Rice was a wise choice as his No.2: the legacy link to Arsenal's past, the grounded history to Arsene's footballing futurism.

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As he searches for a Rice replacement, Wenger no longer needs an establishment representative: he is the establishment. He can choose pretty much whoever he wants, and it wouldn't be astonishing to see the fiftysomething Primorac shift to No.2 while a younger man helps Wenger (himself a sexagenarian) with what Arsenal players of old dismissively referred to as the BBC work: Balls, Bibs and Cones. 

But would that that good for Arsenal?

It's instructive to compare Arsenal's hierarchy history with that of Manchester United. In his time at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson has had eight assistants (seven if you count Carlos Quieroz's two spells as one). Naming them all is a tough pub-quiz question, so do take notes and test your friends' knowledge.

Fergie brought Archie Knox down from Aberdeen in 1986, then promoted Brian Kidd in 1991. When in 1998 Kidd moved to manage Blackburn, Fergie hired Steve McClaren and won the Treble. Backroom loyalist Jimmy Ryan replaced Middlesbrough-bound McClaren until Queiroz came in for a year before being appointed by Real Madrid. Fergie went solo, then roped in Walter Smith for a few months before Queiroz returned in 2004; four years later, Portugal appointed Queiroz and Fergie promoted Mike Phelan.

These details are presented not merely to give you pub ammo, but to highlight the difference between Wenger and Ferguson. Since 1997, the Frenchman has had the same two sidekicks; meanwhile, the Scotsman has bounced ideas off Kidd, McClaren, Ryan, Queiroz, Smith and Phelan.

Fairly or not, both managers have a reputation for being stubborn, but you can't help but wonder if Ferguson's frequently-changing boot-room sounding-boards have helped him keep United fresh. Certainly it can be argued that Ferguson has rebuilt teams in danger of becoming stale â and not coincidentally, it can't be denied that United have been more consistently successful.

Success is based on a number of things but one of them is openness to change. Companies whose boardrooms remain static can become ponderous. Intellectuals can become ideologues if they are surrounded by those who never question the dominant theory. Arsenal are going through a good few months on the field, but a bad few years in the trophy cabinet, and while few would call Rice and Primorac 'yes men', could it be that Wenger needs to hear some fresh input?

During Wenger's time at Arsenal, no Fergie assistant has lasted longer than four years â potentially bad news for Phelan, who hits that anniversary this September. By that point, Arsenal could have a new No.2, or perhaps merely move Primorac to the role he already effectively occupies. For those who wish to see a more open title race, it's to be hoped that whatever Wenger chooses to do, it helps give Arsenal momentum rather than inertia.