Wenger to stay on next season but fans wait for Wembley judgment
Arsenal 1 West Brom 0
With the 'fourth place trophy' confirmed yesterday in the cabinet for a sixth time in nine years, it was surely no coincidence that Arsene Wenger should offer his most convincing guarantee yet that he will be staying at Arsenal.
A contract offer has been allowed to gather dust for most of the past nine months but, having previously evaded all questions on his future, Wenger promised that "yes" he would be back next season.
"You will see me again," said the Gunners manager after joining the players on a 'lap of appreciation' to mark Arsenal's last home game.
So why the wait? For all the denials, the only logical answer is that Wenger wanted to be sure his team would finish strongly after their mid-season collapse.
"It was of course important to be in the Champions League," he said. "It's not linked with my commitment, it's linked with the fact that I feel I am useful.
"If I had moments of doubt they would have been a few years ago when I had to say 'no' to many offers. I committed to this club under a lot of pressure. My word is my word and I'm from an ancestral period where you don't need a pen to commit."
So there was no inkling, then, as he waved to the supporters that this could be his last appearance at the Emirates?
"Don't be too impatient," he smiled. "My last time will come. You'll get rid of me one day, don't worry."
Despite the joke, Wenger will have noted the restrained applause that greeted Arsenal's farewell to their fans.
A 17th straight season of Champions League football has become the minimum that restless season-ticket holders expect and their definition of success will depend almost entirely on whether Mikel Arteta is holding aloft the FA Cup on May 17.
Wenger regards the situation as rather more nuanced and, having led the Premier League for longer than any other club this season, believes there is genuine evidence to support his belief that Arsenal will become legitimate contenders again.
"If we consider the overall quality of our performances this season we can say we have moved forward," said Wenger.
"I'm frustrated as well because we were 120 days top of the league and when you look today, it's still very tight. The regret is that we had too many players out at the most important period of the season."
Specifically, Wenger was conscious after this most routine of 1-0 wins that Arsenal will now finish the season with 79 points if they defeat Norwich City next Sunday.
That would be their most in a season since 2008, and one more than they managed in 1997-'98 when they won their first 'double' of Wenger's tenure.
"I believe that would show we are close to Premier League contenders," claimed Wenger.
Perhaps, but what would now be most convincing is a clinical victory over Hull City in the FA Cup final. Only then would Arsenal start to shed a reputation for choking at the most crucial moments in a season.
More importantly, it might also convince the squad themselves that they can become more than glamorous also-rans over the next few seasons.
Arsenal players, like their supporters, understandably looked like a team with other priorities in mind yesterday and, while they were always in control, there was also a tangible lack of urgency.
Saido Berahino even had a clear chance to put West Brom into the lead before Olivier Giroud's 14th-minute goal that eventually settled the match.
With Aaron Ramsey missing due to what has been described as a "mild" groin problem, Arsenal's attacking thrust from midfield was negligible and the decisive goal actually came from a set-piece.
Santi Cazorla's near-post cross was certainly well delivered, but Craig Dawson was culpable as Giroud sprinted in front of him to guide his header past Ben Foster.
It was Giroud's 22nd of the season, although the need for extra quality in the striker department has been underlined by the simple fact that the Frenchman has managed just one goal in the 12 league matches this season against Arsenal's six main rivals.
Mesut Ozil almost doubled the lead from his intelligent header, but the closest Arsenal came to bringing more comfort to the scoreline was when Lukas Podolski crossed for Cazorla, whose low shot was brilliantly saved by Foster.
As Arsenal's players then acknowledged those fans who had stayed on for the 'lap of appreciation', Bacary Sagna became the focus for chants of "we want you to stay" amid interest from Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.
It was interesting that there was no vocal plea from the supporters towards Wenger. The final judgment, it would seem, will arrive only after Arsenal's visit to Wembley. (© Daily Telegraph, London)