And so one of the longest-running stories in the Premier League is over. Arsene Wenger will stay at Arsenal. Despite all the frustration, despite all the wrangling over power structures, despite the mischievous hints that he might walk dropped on Saturday, Wenger has signed a two-year contract. And so we can go again with all the same grievances as soon as Arsenal loses next season, and then reprise the questions about his future the year after that.
Quite apart from anything else, the timing of the announcement is strange. Why wait? Wenger himself admitted the uncertainty had been a disruptive factor, so if he was happy to stay and the board was happy to offer him the contract, who benefited from delaying the announcement until Wednesday? Surely the board was not waiting to see if Arsenal beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final. As Wenger has said, 20 years shouldn’t be judged on one day.
Wenger prides himself on his dignity and his success and general attitude entitle him to be treated with respect. Increasingly, though, this situation has felt undignified. It’s not just the “one percent” of fans–as Wenger termed them, although it is rather more than that–abusing him on social media and Arsenal Fan TV. It’s the general sense that the club’s development has been placed on hold while Wenger’s future was resolved. That five regular first-teamers have contracts that expire in a year is a scandalous dereliction. Even if Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil end up being sold, basic economic good sense says they are given new deals to increase their transfer value.
It’s true there has been an uptick in form recently. Arsenal has won nine of its last 10 games after switching to a back three, a system Wenger openly scorned when arriving at the club in 1996. Most significantly, although there was the supine defeat in the North London Derby, there have been those respective wins over Manchester City and Chelsea in the semifinal and final of the FA Cup. Arsenal, for once, has beaten major teams on major occasions. May at the Emirates tends to involve promises of a bright tomorrow, but these are the most strident, perhaps even the most persuasive, in a decade.
Yet the fundamental issues remain. Arsenal has cash reserves of £193 million. It can afford, quite easily, to buy four or five genuinely top-class players. But that has been the case for a few seasons now. Some high-grade–or at least expensive–players have arrived in Ozil, Sanchez and Granit Xhaka. But why would the reluctance to enhance a squad in desperate need of refreshing have gone now? And how much harder will it be to sign the very best now that Arsenal has slipped out of the Champions League and must confront the Thursday night slog of the Europa League next season?
But let’s imagine Arsenal does hang on to Sanchez, Ozil and Hector Bellerin, that it does sign a high-grade central defender, a truly commanding central midfielder, a consistent creator who will actually do some defensive work and a top-class striker who will score 25 goals a season. Even then, even with a squad with depth and quality, how likely is it that Arsenal would challenge for the league title? The problems aren’t just about personnel, they’re about tactics and mentality.
Per Mertesacker spoke after the FA Cup final of how the 3-4-2-1 Arsenal has adopted means that there are seven players behind the ball if possession is lost. That is true, but it is also an oddly reactive way of regarding the situation. Chelsea’s use of 3-4-2-1 has been reactive at times, but it has also been proactive. Having six midfielders has allowed it to press higher up the pitch, the wingbacks offering width coming from deep, a mode of play predicated on great positional organization. It has been apparent for around a decade now that Wenger cannot or does not do that. Football has moved on, and he seemingly has not.
But even more troubling is the psychological side. The two collapses against Bayern Munich suggested a side without much backbone or much sense of game management–and those weren’t isolated instances. Arsenal is vulnerable, particularly away from home, to sides that rough it up, and it never seems quite to believe in itself against quality. Perhaps those games against Man City and Chelsea suggest the corner has been turned, but it’s not exactly an unknown Arsenal trait to respond when the real pressure is off. It specializes in the final vain flourish. Perhaps this season, given the nature of the opposition, the flourish is more substantial, but winning the FA Cup in 2014 and 2015 did little to ease the frustration.
Of course, it may be that this is part of a clever plan, that the club will spend the next year seeking a successor and putting in place the structures that will ensure an easier transfer of power than, say, Manchester United endured after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. It may be that Wenger will step aside, dignity very much restored, next summer. But his spat with club CEO Ivan Gazidis over appointing a director of football suggests not.
Wenger remains all-powerful, determined to persevere, and the same wheel keeps turning.