Seven points behind league leaders Liverpool with just six fixtures of the campaign remaining, it appears that despite spending four months of the season at the top of the Premier League table, Arsenal will finish the year in their seemingly-eternal final standing of fourth place.
A record-breaking £42.2million was spent on Mesut Ozil in the summer, and Arsene Wenger has often been quick to remark that his Gunners side have overcome their mistakes from last season.
Yet despite the obvious improvement throughout some patches of the campaign, most notably against the Premier League’s more rank-and-file opposition, that glass ceiling between the North Londoners and the English title race has been at best scratched, but remains fully intact.
With Arsene Wenger’s contract set to come to an end this summer, there have been calls from some sectors of the Emirates faithful for change. The growing accusation is that the Frenchman’s ideological stubbornness and penny-pinching views in the transfer market can only take Arsenal so far in the modern era, and thus, having not claimed a Premier League title for a decade and endured eight years without a trophy, it appears the Gunners have hit their maxim under Wenger.
Ivan Gazidis and the Arsenal boss have both stated it’s only a matter of time before he further extends his North London stay into an unprecedented third decade, but those prepared to entertain speculative theories will make the logical assumption that Wenger is beginning to realise his own limits too.
After all, if Wenger is prepared to sign and the club’s directors still maintain full confidence in Le Prof, why are they waiting for the “right time [to] announce it,” as the Gunners Chief Executive told reporters back in January.
Could the litmus test the Arsenal board, or Arsene Wenger, or indeed both, are waiting for, come in the form of the FA Cup?
On paper, claiming the auxiliary trophy should be a relatively comfortable stroll for the North Londoners; they face Championship side and current holders Wigan Athletic in the semi-final a week from Saturday, leaving them to face either Hull City or League One’s Sheffield United. Excluding the potential banana-skin the Latics are more than capable of providing, this is Arsenal’s likeliest chance of silverware since 2011 – when they lost to Birmingham City in the League Cup final.
Arsenal aren’t the kind of club to let one result – be it in a tournament’s final or not – dictate the future of their dugout. Through glory and defeat they’ve stuck with Arsene Wenger for 18 years, and clearly maintain the view that he’s still amongst the European managerial elite – letting the Frenchman walk away this summer would leave a disturbing void in terms of experience, and having institutionalised club in the form of his own image, the Gunners will fear that his Wenger’s departure could trigger a debasing transition mimicking what we’ve witnessed from Manchester United this season.
But this isn’t just any ordinary, annual Wembley occasion. For a manager whose been in the same job for nearly two decades, Wenger has a lot to prove between now and next season, most predominantly, is he capable of leading the Gunners to silverware?
The financially burdening move to the Emirates and its implications on the club’s transfer policy are duly noted, but regardless, nearly nine years without a trophy, harking back to an FA Cup win in 2005, is far too long for a club of Arsenal’s stature and resources.
In that time, the Gunners have spent nearly £230million on new signings, Wenger has earned around £60million in wages and 52 of the 92 football league clubs have picked up some form of silverware. It’s impossible to escape the fact that, all things considered, this is a huge underachievement, especially for a manager of Wenger’s clear ability.
Linked to that notion is whether or not Wenger has the intelligence, determination and appreciation of the opposition to tactically mastermind victory. Once again, Arsenal’s inevitable, fatal failing this season has been the inability to claim results against their fellow title contenders – they’ve taken just five points out of a possible 15 against top four opposition in the Premier League.
Neither Wigan, Hull nor Sheffield United fill that calibre of adversary, but whilst it’s been clear that Arsenal’s opposition have more than prepared for them this season, the same can’t be said for the Gunners. Jose Mourinho for example, is prepared to bend his Chelsea roster any way possible to get a result. Wenger on the other hand, is determined for his side to win games playing ‘the Wenger way’. Some view that as commendable, others arrogant, but for Arsenal to lose on another big occasion for the sake of ideological principles will simply not suffice. Performances mean nothing compared to results in the context of the FA Cup.
No one can doubt Wenger’s determination to succeed, but to triumph at Wembley, the Frenchman needs to show a willingness to bend his own philosophical pillars by targeting the weaknesses of the opposition rather than simply relying upon his side’s strengths. In terms of motivation, he needs to charge his players with the task of showing a level of ruthlessness that matches their obvious, undoubted quality.
Failing that, and it could be a case of FA Cup or bust for the Arsenal boss, most likely of his own accord. The Gunners announced a new sponsorship deal with Puma back in January, worth a basic £22million plus further incentives per season, that in turn, according to the Telegraph, will leave £80million at Arsenal’s disposal this summer to spend on new recruits.
That money could be given to Wenger, and most likely spent on a number of signings of the Mikel Arteta, Olivier Giroud variety. Or, it could be given to a new manager with different ideas, prepared to take the club in an ulterior direction.
The Puma deal is a huge crossroads for Arsenal, and providing they get the better of Wigan in a fortnight’s time, so will be the occasion at Wembley. The trophy-less trend has gone on too long at the Emirates, and at this point, the only remaining constant is the man in the dugout. If the Gunners, and most importantly, Wenger, can’t deliver, then the time for change will undoubtedly be upon us.