Is this Arsene Wenger's last shot at glory with Arsenal?
Arsenal's current campaign has been dominated by the narrative of damage limitation. Their failure to tie Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to new deals left them dogged by 'will-they-go?' headlines in the press throughout the first half of the season, with the situation resolved only in January.
It was a distraction unwelcome at a club often praised for the shrewdness with which it is run, but which had been in such a precarious position before.
Rewind 12 months and it was manager Arsene Wenger whose future was uncertain. The 68-year-old’s contract was up in the summer of 2017, and as the Emirates club missed Champions League qualification for the first time in 19 years, there was genuine doubt over whether the Frenchman’s era was over.
After prolonged speculation, he signed a new two-year deal, potentially extending his time with the Gunners to a few months short of 23 years.
Wenger, of course, has known incredible success in north London. During his tenure, the club has three Premier League titles and seven FA Cups to their name, as well as a Champions League final appearance.
But over a period that now runs close to 15 years, the silverware has slowed to a trickle, with three FA Cups all they have to show for their efforts in nearly a decade and a half.
Consequently, Sunday’s League Cup final against Manchester City offers Arsenal an increasingly rare shot at glory – and perhaps the last in Wenger’s reign.
While the Frenchman continues to receive apparently unwavering backing from the board, to an increasing number of supporters, he has become emblematic of a club stuck in the past, unwilling to invest sufficiently to challenge the league’s really big guns.
Arsenal have not won the Premier League – the true barometer of a team’s quality – since 2004. This is nothing on the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham, yet there is little denying that both these sides have overtaken Wenger’s men in the pecking order and appear better placed to win the league title before the Gunners next do.
Settling for a top-six finish, regardless of their success in domestic cup competitions and the second-tier Europa League, cannot be what a team like Arsenal is about, yet it is threatening to become their staple.
With only 11 matches of the league season remaining, the Gunners find themselves a distant eight points from the Champions League spots and are closer in terms of points to West Brom at the foot of the table than they are to City at the top.
January, however, brought a new wave of optimism at the Emirates. The transfer window was widely considered to be a successful one as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was captured from Borussia Dortmund after a prolonged fight for his signature, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan was added from Manchester United in place of the departing Alexis.
These additions may have brought a sense of electricity to the club’s fans, yet they are signings that failed to address the long-term defensive issues faced by the team and indeed seemed to point to a new short-term approach for a team that has for so long been renowned at rearing players.
Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan, who will both be 29 by the time next season begins, are players designing to bring success in the immediate future. Along with Mesut Ozil, who recently signed a new deal, they are not the building blocks for the long term, but players who will be relied on to bring success in the next 18 months – coincidentally the length of time Wenger has left on his deal.
Club legend Bob Wilson said of the manager’s approach in 2004 at the peak of the club’s powers: “The Arsene brand of football is based on five things: power, pace, skill, technique and, in capital letters, YOUTH.”
Wenger’s departure from his essential mantra may be seen as a step in the right direction by some, but by others as the hallmarks of a final hail Mary before his time in the dugout is finally up.
Certainly, the manner in which Arsenal have been allowed to degrade slowly but surely over the past decade suggests that they will need either several years or a colossal investment to reinvent themselves as regular trophy winners. Wenger is unlikely to be the recipient of either of these things.
Nevertheless, while he does not have a team capable of producing the consistency to win a league title, largely due to a flaky defence and Ozil’s inconsistency, any of the ‘Big Six’ Premier League sides possess an abundance of world-class talent capable of beating any side on their day. Their cup record over the last five years stands as testimony to that fact.
Wenger, no doubt, remains as hungry for success as ever, even if he is now unsure of the recipe of how to achieve it.
It would be foolish, therefore, to discount the Gunners’ prospects on Sunday, just as it would be wrong to suggest that winning the Europa League is beyond them.
Indeed, just as Manchester United prioritised Europe’s silver medal event towards the end of last season, Wenger may well be forced to do the same in a bid to restore the club to the Champions League status that he believes they deserve.
Arsenal may be a fading force, but they are not yet a faded one, and so Sunday’s clash is not the be all and end all for Wenger, whose opportunities to win trophies may be running out, but are by no means expired.