Over the past eight years or so, everyone at the Emirates, including the fans, the players and Arsene Wenger himself, appear to have been happy with the strategy; ‘slow and steady wins the race’.
Whilst other clubs and their supporters would have quickly turned on each other following Arsenal’s continual slide down the Premier League pecking order, in addition to an extended silverware drought, the Gunners faithful, barring a few outbursts of underlying anger from the Black Scarf movement and a handful of post-match protests at the start of the year, have always stood by their often criticised French gaffer.
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Even during the current campaign, where arguments have been made that Wenger should be relieved of his duties at the Emirates, with a string of poor results towards the end of 2012, in addition to being knocked out of the Capital One Cup and FA Cup by lesser opposition, Bradford and Blackburn respectively, accuse an Arsenal supporter that their gaffer must go, and the vast majority would reply in militant defence of their spiritual and philosophical figurehead.
Yet it appears those in North London, who I myself have accused of being blindly loyal to their own detriment, could well have the last laugh. Whilst many assumed that the Financial Fair Play laws would eventually save Wenger’s job, an opportunity has now been handed to the Frenchman ahead of next season. With Chelsea and the two Manchester Clubs all undergoing changes to their management, Wenger, having outlived his old foe Sir Alex Ferguson, can now claim to be the longest serving manager in the English top flight, in addition to being the most successful in terms of silverware.
It begs the question as to whether Arsenal should be pushing for the title next season, amid the chaos of inevitable transition at the Premier League’s summit. Improvements will be widely expected at the Emirates over the course of the summer and the coming campaign, but should Wenger take advantage of the situation and take the club a step further, with next year representing their best opportunity for nearly a decade to be crowned Champions of England?
Despite consistency, stability and longevity being key words surrounding David Moyes’ appointment as the successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, there will undoubtedly be some teething pains at Old Trafford next season. The Scot will be desperate to step out of his fellow countryman’s shadow, starting with the coming transfer window. A new central midfielder will have to be brought in, with the most likely candidate being Marouane Fellaini, in addition to a replacement for the want-away Wayne Rooney. There are several other areas, including left-back and on the wings, that could also do with mild improvements, however the desire for evolution rather than revolution could restrict Moyes making wholesale changes during his first transfer period.
Nevertheless, there will be difficulties adjusting. Rooney’s departure would signify that a new style of play will need to be found, or at least modified from the current template, and the new United gaffer will be presented with the imposing challenge of balancing out results, consistency and his desire the club in a new direction.
The task will be made even harder with Moyes’ lack of experience at top level; there is little doubt over the Scot’s abilities as a manager, yet leading a club of Everton’s stature, with limited pressure for results or silverware, is a whole different challenge to being at the helm of one of Europe’s biggest footballing institutions. Although I believe that Moyes’ tenure will overall be a success, his naivety at the highest level will undoubtedly show at times during his first season at Old Trafford. Furthermore, he will be without the on-pitch experience of Paul Scholes, and the backroom knowledge of Mike Phelan and Rene Muelensteen.
It will be a similar, if not worse situation on the sky-blue side of Manchester. Whilst United are promoting a manager that has lived and breathed Premier League football for almost the entirety of his career as a head coach, Manchester City are set to bring in Manuel Pellegrini, a gaffer who has not only come up short during his only tenure at a big club, but furthermore, has never worked in England before.
His origins lay in the South American philosophy of the game, and although City’s head-honchos Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano clearly envisage the former Premier League Champions moving towards a breed of football that most closely resembles Barcelona, the reality is that the squad at Eastlands consists on the most part of highly physical, hard working and robust footballers, with a few exceptions in the attacking department. The transition process, in addition to Pellegrini having to acclimatise himself with the English game, will hinder their chances of reclaiming the domestic title next season.
It does not mean however that the Gunners are in the best shape ahead of next season. On paper, I’d argue that their squad, in terms of the starting XI and the overall strength and depth, is the weakest of the Premier League’s top four. Although the level of talent now has a fairly even spread through all departments, the Gunners’ lack of real stars, with the exclusion of Jack Wilshere, has cost them in the big games this season, with domestic defeats coming against Man City, Man United, Chelsea and Tottenham, and not a single victory against any of the top three.
Yet, it will not necessarily be the big games that decide the title race next year. Amid City and Chelsea’s rather dormant campaigns, the Red Devils, despite losing on three out of four occasions to their closest league rivals, have claimed the Premiership trophy by simply steam-rolling results over the lesser teams. It’s a ploy of tactic that Arsene Wenger has undertook during the business end of the season, recording eight victories in their last ten fixtures, with five clean sheets in the process, against the top flight’s rank and file clubs.
Undoubtedly, grinding out the results rather than chasing down 3-0 wins will be the Frenchman’s approach ahead of next season, as it has produced the most consistent and efficient patch of form throughout a lukewarm campaign at the Emirates. But Wenger will still be expected to bring in new recruits of substantial quality over the summer to improve the Gunners’ starting XI.
Despite positive displays from Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, another centre-back needs to be brought into the mix, and the reliance upon the likes of Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott for goals warrants the need for a new front man to rival Olivier Giroud, who appears to play in spurts of hot and cold form. Furthermore, although midfield is Arsenal’s strongest department, there is an imbalance in terms of physicality and defensive awareness that requires addressing in time for next season.
Therefore, we should be witnessing at the Emirates in the coming campaign a roster improved by the signing of a select few key individuals, but in terms of philosophy, tactics and methodology of play, there will unlikely be a reinvention of the wheel. With the foundations already set, and the Premier League’s most experienced manager, but more importantly, the title race’s most experienced manager at the helm, the Gunners should be in better stead than their division rivals to take advantage of the transition process and changing of the guard at the head of the English top flight.
Yet the only flaw in the plan will be sourced in West London. Should Jose Mourinho turn up at Stamford Bridge during the summer, Arsene Wenger will suddenly have a close rival in terms of experience, knowledge of the Premier League, and most vitally, success.
The outgoing Real Madrid manager brings with him a persona that immediately produces results through confidence alone, and furthermore the Chelsea squad will be readily recipient of Mourinho’s influence, with a number of his former employees still at the club, who now form the core of the first team’s leadership, in addition to a cast of young and hungry footballers still desperate to prove themselves on the domestic stage following two seasons of being a long way off the title race.
The Blues represent the biggest challenge to Arsenal imposing themselves as dark horses next season. Their managerial appointment will be the only one out of the top three clubs that is not overall a step backwards, at least in the short term, but their roster, with a few mild improvements, can easily rival the strength and quality of the two Manchester clubs.
Whether or not Arsene Wenger can make the most out of a season that looks set to be the most unpredictable yet will largely depend upon how well the Gunners can integrate their summer signings. Whilst Chelsea, City and United will be struggling with teething pains, especially during the opening weeks of the campaign, Arsenal need to take advantage of being the most stabilised club in the top four, meaning that despite the presence of new recruits, Wenger must stick with his current mould of play and the current tactic of drawing out the 1-0 victories.
Perhaps the Gunners actually lifting the title is a bridge too far, considering the roster is still a few years of improvement away from challenging their divisional rivals in terms of quality, yet next season, taking the initiative and stating intent will be the most important factor in the title race.
Should Arsene Wenger lead his men to first place in the first few months of the season, whilst Chelsea, City and United are still finding their feet, he may be able to create a cushion of points that will put the pressure on his opponents, which will translate into media scrutiny and poor performances on the pitch, that will further slow down their predicted painful transition process.
They are still distant outsiders, as they have been for the best part of a decade, yet next season will by far be Arsenal’s biggest chance to close the gap between themselves and the Premier League title, and Arsene Wenger must use a mix of his abundance of experience as well as the smart aquisition of new recruits in the summer, to take advantage of what could be the most chaotic season in the history of the English top flight.