Wednesday 26 October 2016

Time running out for Wenger

Jeremy Wilson

Published 07/08/2016 | 02:30

Arsene Wenger is still judged in the broader context of it being 12 years since his 'Invincible' season. Photo: Reuters
Arsene Wenger is still judged in the broader context of it being 12 years since his 'Invincible' season. Photo: Reuters

Is this really Arsene Wenger's last season?

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A question that is likely to hover over this campaign. At 66, Wenger would be the first to acknowledge that the end of his reign is in sight but he genuinely does not yet know himself exactly when the curtain will come down.

What we do know is that, after the looming 20-year anniversary in October, his contract expires next June and he is unwilling to make any decisions yet about an extension. The fact that he recently turned down the possibility to manage England signalled that his heart remains with Arsenal.

A top-four finish has arguably never been more difficult but he knows that this three-year contract cycle was all about seriously challenging again to win the Premier League. Last season's second place was not the outright disaster some might portray but that still cannot obscure the scale of the opportunity that went begging.

The hope of Wenger and Arsenal is that it will not be his last season and that he will deliver the results to again validate his position. But all sides are probably realistic enough to know what that needs and, without a sustained challenge to win the Premier League or Champions League, it has become difficult to envision a new contract.

What changed after 2006?

The Wenger years can be simply split into two halves. A glorious first decade that included three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, an 'Invincible' season, a Champions League final, a new stadium and some of the best club football seen in England.

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There has then been an often frustrating second decade that has peaked with two more FA Cup wins and relentless top-four consistency but which has seen Arsenal's European challenge plateau at the last 16 stage and any flicker of a real title challenge become undermined by mental or physical weaknesses. The mitigation is that the stadium still had to be paid for and would also impact on commercial revenues and therefore spending.

Arsenal ran close to breaking even on their transfer spending during much of this period. It was also a time when Manchester United became a commercial juggernaut while Manchester City and Chelsea's financial power was underpinned by extraordinarily wealthy owners.

Equally irrefutable, however, is the repeated pattern of Arsenal's defeats. Yes, there are financial limitations but the cash balance has never been emptied and various potentially game-changing signings have slipped through Wenger's grasp over sums of money that the club could have afforded. Injuries to crucial players and a lack of defensive discipline have also become regular occurrences at key moments.

Are these players good enough?

They were collectively too frail when it really mattered last season and, without further signings or considerably better fortune with injuries, it is hard to see how it will be much different this time. Yes, it is a relatively young team and so another year together should yield further improvement but the fragility of certain players remains alarming.

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Can a Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, for example, deliver on their potential throughout a 38-game Premier League season? Or, will they have moments of great promise followed by periods in rehabilitation and then cycles of struggling to find full match fitness? If so, the knock-on for the rest of this squad will again be too much. Two more signings are sought at striker and centre-back and it will be fascinating now to see how Wenger approaches the rest of the transfer window.

Can he win the fans back?

Wenger's relationship with the Arsenal fans is complicated. There are deep frustrations but still a lot of feeling. The frustration and sense that Arsenal will never return to previous heights under him was evident in booing of the team at half-time of the home match against Swansea City last season when they were still favourites with most bookmakers to win the Premier League. Equally, their respect and affection was shown in how the overwhelming majority rejected an attempted protest near the end of last season when their title hopes had already faded.

Most Arsenal fans would probably want nothing more than a glorious comeback this season but they have become sceptical. Had another manager finished fourth, third, second and won two FA Cups over the last three seasons, there would be a more definite sense of momentum. Wenger, though, is judged in the broader context of 12 years since his 'Invincible' season.

What happens after Wenger leaves?

Chief executive Ivan Gazidis has described the eventual departure of Wenger as the biggest challenge facing Arsenal and it has been thought about and to some extent planned for. That is not to say the club's hierarchy are hoping for it to happen any time soon but there is no certainty just now beyond this coming 2016-17 season.

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The relationship between Wenger and the board is such that they would expect to have time to prepare in advance. A process of modernising all the support around the manager, specifically scouting, sports science, medicine and data analytics, is about the coming decades rather than just Wenger and there is actually a small core of staff who would be likely to depart with the manager.

In common with just about every Premier League club, the theory is that you build structures and a culture that is not solely dependent on the manager for its excellence. The void would still initially be huge. Wenger's influence is felt at just about every level of the club and, in terms of internal decision-making, there is no more powerful manager in the Premier League and perhaps even Europe. The question would be whether Arsenal simply go shopping for one of the well-known continental managers who seem to work their way through various big clubs or look more long-term for the man who best fits their model.

To put it another way, do they go more Carlo Ancelotti or Eddie Howe? That decision could very easily come next year but, equally, Wenger's ongoing appetite and physical fitness means that the possibility of him outlasting another generation of rivals cannot be discounted.


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