However Arsenal proceed in the summer, one of their primary considerations will be the identity the club have cultivated under Arsène Wenger. That goes far beyond the football pitch: in common with most of their direct rivals at home and abroad, Arsenal have been voracious in their drive to enlist a global support base and everybody needs their unique selling point.
In Arsenal’s case, the vision they have cultivated over the past decade is bound inextricably with the success and style that hallmarked happier times in the Wenger era – a certain footballing philosophy, a certain appetite for trusting young players.
An explainer of “The Arsenal Way” makes up a prominent section of the club’s website; it would be a big risk to replace the Frenchman with somebody who does not fit that projection and a complete break would certainly create a challenge or two for the club’s commercial arm.
Even if the club could attract a proven winner in Diego Simeone, say, the Argentinian’s style does not necessarily match the Arsenal brand. The ideal solution might have been for an old face steeped in Arsenal ways to be nurtured for the manager’s job; it was no surprise that Rémi Garde was spoken of admiringly in the Emirates Stadium corridors of power during his time at Lyon. But his star has waned and there is no obvious candidate among higher-profile old boys. Perhaps the failure to integrate one or more of Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Jens Lehmann into the existing staff has made life more complicated.
The public image needs to stay consistent and nobody should underestimate Wenger’s contribution to it. Ivan Gazidis had to work painstakingly at the start of the decade to persuade Wenger that pre-season tours of Asia, the United States and elsewhere were necessary for the club’s long-term health, but once the manager bought the argument he was fully committed.
At these gospel-spreading events, no matter who or where the audience is and no matter what Wenger’s private feelings might be on disruptions to the team’s schedule, he always finds the right words and tone – warm, witty, informed, interested. As an ambassador for everything Arsenal sells itself as representing, Wenger is a dream come true; the big concern now is that when the club describes itself, it is describing him.
The British core
The photograph of a beaming Wenger poised behind Arsenal’s “British core”, pens at the ready to confirm new long-term contracts in December 2012, is too easily used against him now, but the fact remains that somebody will have to deal with the futures of a crop of players that threatens to symbolise years of stasis and unfulfilled promise.
Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson can all point to portions of ill fortune – largely injury-related – since then but all bar Oxlade-Chamberlain are now firmly in their mid-twenties and it is time to get the most out of their careers.
All five have shown, in spells of varying length, their capabilities, but it is hard to make a case that any of them have not stagnated – and this is before we even approach the subject of Theo Walcott, 28 next month. Perhaps the lack of leaders and savoir faire around them has not helped their development; Wenger prefers to let his players problem-solve on the job but all of these players have been involved in their fair share of crushing setbacks, with no obvious longer-term benefit to the mental strength their manager champions.
Developing these players together was an admirable policy and has brought its share of fun moments, but it has not worked and the most ambitious step for all parties might be to find something new. The caveat here is that a new manager might be able to create conditions that allow these players – particularly the midfielders – a platform from which to thrive and take responsibility, but the harder-nosed view would be that they are remnants of an approach that has pledged jam tomorrow for too long.
Whichever way you see it, the British core’s future is one of the more significant elephants in the room and represents a bigger set of questions about the environment in which Arsenal’s players are nurtured.
Özil and Sánchez
Mesut Özil’s arrival for £42.4m in September 2013 was lauded as Arsenal’s return to the top level, a willingness and ability to compete among the super-rich after the enforced austerity of the post-Highbury years. Similar noises were made when Alexis Sánchez joined 10 months later and the Chilean, especially, has done everything in his power to raise the levels of those around him. Yet the backslapping has given way to deep uncertainty, with both players’ contracts expiring next year.
Özil has stated explicitly that his future is tied to that of Wenger, while Sánchez, by far the more damaging potential loss on current form, has not been able to hide his annoyance at team-mates’ lack of application in recent weeks.
Arsenal signed two stars but have failed to build the rest of the squad to a similar standard. Now they stand to lose them but all involved need to make their decisions quickly. If both can be persuaded to sign before the end of the season it would provide some evidence that the squad has a viable long-term base.
Should both depart, however, it would at least clean the slate for the arrival of any new manager while boosting his transfer pot. The last thing anybody needs is a situation that drags into the summer but it is not hard to see why Arsenal might be treading carefully. If their only two world-class players – albeit a generous count given Özil’s recent form – jump ship then the impression given to supporters, not to mention potential recruits, would be difficult to explain away.
Could Wenger stay on?
Wenger has indicated that he will carry on in management for another four years; might there, in fact, be a way in which Arsenal could use that time wisely?
That might not sit well with the sizeable “out” movement among Arsenal fans but with a degree of candour from the club it is not an outlandish thought that he could at least remain for the length of his next contract.
The dependence of Arsenal’s structure – from the machinations in the boardroom to the smallest detail at the training ground – upon Wenger is well documented, and perhaps it would be no bad thing if somebody high up had the honesty to admit that, to move on successfully, a period of transition is needed.
If the stated aim was a holding pattern of Champions League qualification rather than, necessarily, top honours while the ground was prepared for managerial change then the appetite for patience might be rather greater.
Perhaps a junior coach could be nurtured alongside Wenger and Steve Bould, who, while hugely respected at Arsenal and beyond, is 54 and almost certain not to take a top job now.
More importantly, the lines of command between manager and board need a careful refashioning and one answer could involve giving a former player with exceptional knowledge of the club’s workings some kind of executive role.
Asking supporters to buckle up for a bit more of the same might seem a stretch – but this is where Arsenal are now, and if the steps needed to set up more dynamically for the future will take time then perhaps that just needs to be swallowed. Letting Wenger see out what would explicitly be his final deal could be a more effective policy than ripping everything apart.