Arsene Wenger became the most successful manager in the history of the FA Cup last weekend as he overcame Premier League champions Chelsea, 2-1 at Wembley. A seventh title for the Frenchman and a record breaking 13th for Arsenal, a third Wembley triumph in four years sending gunners fans into delirium through the Bank Holiday weekend. Yet, as quickly as it took Aaron Ramsey to put Arsenal ahead again on Saturday, fans switched focus to the future of their long-serving manager.
They didn’t have to wait too long for news, yesterday afternoon the club confirmed the agreement of a two-year contract extension taking Wenger to 23 years as the boss of Arsenal FC. Yet, questions remain. Is he the right man? Can Arsenal compete with their rivals despite missing out on the Champions League? Will they hang on to Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil? The immediate answers to all three would be no, but this summer presents a chance for the club and more importantly, Wenger, to put things right after arguably the worst season of his Arsenal career.
As an Arsenal fan myself, the FA Cup win was brilliant. It was the best performance of the season, Per Mertersacker silenced all with a towering captains display, Aaron Ramsey was the hero on Cup Final day again and Sanchez and Ozil ran the show. However, this only papered over the wide and continuously growing cracks at a club that has been embarrassed by a shambolic handling of affairs. The campaign turned into a ‘Wenger In/Wenger Out’ fiasco, where the number of protest planes that were seen outweighed Arsenal wins in February and March. The squad seemed lost, confidence was shot and the star player, the beacon of the club, Sanchez, was dropped to the bench for a trip to Anfield (nevertheless, he came on and got an assist in a 3-1 loss). West Brom, Crystal Palace and Watford inflicted unforgivable beatings which looked set to send Wenger out the door in May.
Which leaves another debate: How has he finished outside the top four for the first time in 20 years, ended 18 points off league champions Chelsea, lost 10-2 to Bayern in the Champions League… and kept his job? It seemed like Wenger was going to sign a contract regardless of the FA Cup final result, and with new promises of ambition and a focus on only signing top class players, one is left to wonder how true it will be. Is it determination or arrogance?
Despite this, now it is done and the manager is staying, it is vital the fans leave the protests aside, cancel any flights for next season that involve banners hanging off them and back the team. With a new back-three system, Arsenal won nine out of their last ten with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Granit Xhaka and Rob Holding flourishing. It’s a wonder what happened in the dressing room to change their form so miraculously, or was it just classic Arsenal?
As I said before, this summer is huge for the club. The priority must now be retaining those who are already there, Sanchez, Ozil, Chamberlain and deciding the futures of the likes of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Petr Cech. The likelihood is the Chilean and German internationals will depart, making it pivotal Arsenal ensure any transfer is abroad and not to a rival. A similar quality replacement will be tough without the lure of Champions League football, so it’s hard to decipher who the club’s targets are. Riyad Mahrez has announced he wants to leave Leicester, presenting a gaping opportunity for Arsenal to cash-in. That’s a start but more will be needed to fill the void of the club’s top scorer and key creator for the last two years. Jordan Pickford would be a great addition with the possibility of David Ospina departing. Nigerian striker Henry Onyekuru is set to arrive from Belgium after scoring 22 in 38 games, finishing top scorer in the league. Gylfi Sigurdsson is another – sure he can fit into Ozil’s role – but are they good enough for Arsenal?
One thing is for sure, change is needed at the club even if the managerial role is remaining the same. If Arsenal invest well this summer improvements can be made, even with the pending departures of Ozil and Sanchez. If the club are clear with fans rather than tormenting them with indecisiveness for months, the connection can be repaired. If Wenger can motivate this group of players to build on the platform the FA Cup has now given them, they can look into moving back into the top four. Although, that’s a lot of ‘ifs’.