Arsene Wenger may have been at Arsenal for over 20 years, but with that stay looking like being extended to 22 years with the news of his latest contract, it feels more than ever like the Frenchman is stepping into the unknown.
It may never be entirely clear how much change Wenger has had to accept upon signing his latest contract extension, but the very fact that it’s taken the club this long to decide on his future suggests he’s on his last legs at the Emirates Stadium.
The 67-year-old saved Arsenal’s season with a thoroughly impressive FA Cup final win over Chelsea at the weekend, but finally failed to clinch a top four spot and the Champions League football that comes with it after being run pretty close on more than one occasion down the years.
In other words, he is no longer the untouchable figure he once was; he does not necessarily guarantee the stability his superiors crave.
While sorting out his future is one summer task ticked off the list, Wenger now has the job of winning his club over all over again, and this is where the five biggest changes need to happen:
1. Transfer market mentality
If Arsenal are to be a big club, they must start to look, think and behave like one. That means keeping Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil at all costs. That means identifying, as early as possible this summer, the key areas of the squad that need strengthening and signing the players to improve on current options.
Sead Kolasinac looks to be on his way on a free and looks like being good business. However, there can be no more dithering as with N’Golo Kante last summer, or as with Luis Suarez four years ago.
Arsenal have the money, and now, more than ever, they have to spend it because they no longer have the Champions League football to persuade players who might have their doubts.
If, worst case scenario, Sanchez and Ozil are to leave, that must also be resolved quickly. In the summer of 2012, Robin van Persie left for Manchester United the day before the first game of the season, and Alex Song followed three days later.
If a deal cannot be agreed with Sanchez in particular, then work must begin immediately on replacing him – before he leaves, if necessary – as it will be an almighty task to find a player capable of replacing a genuinely world class forward and provider of 30 goals and 13 assists in 2016/17.
More than ever, the onus if on Wenger to prove himself of matching modern managers in an area that was once his strong point but has increasingly looked a weakness as time has gone on and others have caught up.
If, as reported, not working with a director of football was a deal breaker for him, he simply cannot have another mediocre transfer window.
Once that’s done, there’s also this lot think about. Good luck, Arsene…
2. Tactical flexibility
In a way, Wenger’s move to a highly effective 3-4-3 towards the end of this season is a welcome change: Arsenal finished with nine wins out of ten since the switch to three at the back, including convincingly taking the scalps of Manchester City and Chelsea in the semi-finals and final of the FA Cup.
The only question that has to be asked is, where was this earlier? Antonio Conte had Chelsea blowing teams away in this system from October onwards. Tottenham and others quickly followed suit, with Mauricio Pochettino using that system to great effect to actually end the Blues’ 13-game winning run.
Arsenal, meanwhile, used it for the first time away to Middlesbrough on 17th April, when the Champions League was gone and a top four place was already a fading dot on the horizon.
Great managers lead innovations, rather than copying them. While Wenger deserves credit for playing Conte at his own game and using the 3-4-3 system so effectively against him, he needs to ensure he’s not six months’ behind the times again. In modern football, that’s a lifetime.
3. Attitude to leadership
One of the most noticeable things about Arsenal’s FA Cup performance was the remarkable performance of Per Mertesacker.
Not only did the German giant put in a remarkable display to stifle Diego Costa and block everything coming his way considering his lack of match sharpness, but he put in a true captain’s performance.
How often have we said that of Arsenal since the days of Patrick Vieira and Tony Adams? Great players as Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie were, they never looked ideal fits for the armband. And most tellingly since then, the armband has gone to some surprise names who’ve barely played.
Thomas Vermaelen started seven Premier League games in 2013/14, with Mikel Arteta skippering the side in his prolonged absence. Predictably, the Spaniard was then crocked for the majority of the following two seasons, with Per Mertesacker filling in until getting the job permanently last summer only to – yep, you guessed it – get injured for the entire season.
Arsenal’s captains under Wenger
Tony Adams – 1996-2002
Patrick Vieira – 2002-2005
Thierry Henry – 2005-2007
William Gallas – 2007-2008
Cesc Fabregas – 2008-2011
Robin van Persie – 2011-2012
Thomas Vermaelen – 2012-2014
Mikel Arteta – 2014-2016
Per Mertesacker – 2016*
He’s not the best centre-back in the world, but in Mertesacker Wenger has a real gem in his squad; an experienced, passionate figure whose desire to put his body on the line for Arsenal can override his lack of pace and flexibility.
Some of his captaincy appointments in recent years suggest Wenger doesn’t think a great deal of the role.
He’s not alone in this regard, with the nature of the modern game meaning captains can change by the week: Chris Smalling, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have all worn the armband for Manchester United at some point this season, but it does not excuse what is close to a decade of neglect to the role by Wenger.
4. Juggling the Europa League
Once again, Wenger has to come to a decision quickly when it comes to the Europa League. As Jose Mourinho made so painfully clear this season, it is not a competition that big clubs want to be playing in, but it is one potential route to the Champions League.
There may be time for Wenger to change his mind about it depending on league performances, but surely the priority to begin with must be on domestic issues: Chelsea and Leicester City have shown the benefits of chasing a title without the added distraction and fatigue of midweek football, and Arsenal often don’t have a big enough squad to be competing on so many fronts anyway.
Fans surely won’t be too downhearted if the Gunners start out fielding young players in the group stage. Given that the level of competition is usually quite low, a club with an academy of Arsenal’s calibre can surely still progress whilst leaving Sanchez, Ozil and co. at home.
If they go out, no big deal; if they go through, take a look at the league table later in the season and decide if, like United, the competition actually starts to represent the club’s best chance of getting back in the Champions League.
5. Future contract clarity
Speaking after the FA Cup final, Wenger’s opinion on the club’s struggles this season could not have been clearer:
‘If you look at us until December we were 20 games unbeaten,’ he said. ‘This season was hurt by blip in March and uncertainty over my future.’
Clearly a dig at the board for taking so long to decide whether or not they wanted to keep him, Wenger could have done more himself to make the situation clear to both his players and the fans.
At most top clubs it would not be majorly controversial to say ‘I want to stay, but it depends on delivering a trophy and/or a top four place’.
Ideally, Wenger will now decide quickly if this is his last Arsenal contract or not. If, as seems likely, these are to be his final two years in north London, he must help ensure a replacement is lined up by summer 2019, so the club aren’t in this kind of mess again.
Arsenal must not be in a situation where their manager’s future is having a negative effect on their form, and must not risk the prospect of losing their manager and having little over a month to find the kind of replacement required in time for pre-season and ideally in time to sign his own targets and put together a squad to his liking.
Hopefully, the nature of Wenger’s latest FA Cup final triumph shows he is capable of change, but there have been false dawns in the past. After having to fight harder than ever to convince those above him he’s the man for the job, he will now face evermore impatient and dissenting fans, many of whom made it vocally known they wanted him gone this summer.
Far too comfortable for far too long in this job, Wenger now has no option but to show his own desire to stay on for the good of the club is justified. He can no longer be anything but the real deal.