Why Arsene Wenger must plan for a January transfer redemption
For the second time this season, Arsenal have been involved in one of the games of the Premier League campaign, but while the 2-2 draw against Chelsea on Wednesday night proved to be a great evening of entertainment, it highlighted a lot more negatives than positives for Arsene Wenger and his side.
Just like the 3-1 defeat to Manchester United last month, Arsenal's attacking qualities were heavily cancelled out by the defensive frailties that have caused the club to drop out of the top four. The fans have been frustrated with Wenger for a while, and with each passing season of disappointment, the rumblings have become louder.
Wenger and Arsenal missed the perfect time to part ways last summer, and his decision to sign a new contract at the club offered little optimism for the immediate future. The concerns have again been justified, and they have now fallen behind North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur to add to the frustration of the fans.
Wenger will highlight recent FA Cup successes in order to justify his position, but it has become a second-rate competition for the leading clubs, and their UEFA Europa League campaign is following a similar status pattern. For Wenger, any trophy will do at the present time, but he knows that his team are slipping further away from the top four with each passing season.
Of course, Europa League success will ensure a return to the UEFA Champions League, and it is a route that Jose Mourinho and Manchester United benefited from this season. However, winning the competition can only come at the expense of domestic form, such are the demands of competing on the continent, and Wenger simply does not have the strength in depth to support such an approach.
And that is why the current January transfer window could prove to be one of the most important in Wenger's long career at the club. In addition to strengthening his defence, he will ideally need to retain the services of attacking duo Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil if the side are to maintain any offensive flair, and their influence was never more apparent than on Wednesday night.
But if Wenger is to have a successful month, he will need to spend like he has never spent before. He has already begun with the signing of young Greek defender Konstantinos Mavropanos from PAS Giannina, but like the majority of Wenger's signings, he is one for the future rather than for the present. It is a transfer policy that has largely served Wenger well in the past, but the present demands something much different.
Jack Wilshire has made a positive return to form, and he is a good example of a player nurtured by Wenger, a luxury of his one club longevity. The impressive Ainsley Maitland-Niles is another player that has justified the trust bestowed in him by Wenger, and he will be considered one of the positives of the season regardless of how it all ends in May.
But for the few positives, Wenger's persistence to avoid buying the finished product is also backfiring on him, and the erratic form of defender Calum Chambers is a good case in point. A young player devoid of confidence, Chambers has headlined the defensive flaws hidden behind disputed penalty decisions and simply isn't good enough to play regularly for a side looking to achieve Premier League success.
January is a key time to right the wrongs of the season so far, and if Wenger can look inside his stubborn exterior he would be well advised to remember his famous failings of January 2014. Back then, Arsenal had taken the early initiative and had capitalised on the fact that all of their title rivals were heading into a season of managerial transition, in particular, the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
Significant investment in the services of Mesut Ozil was rewarded as Arsenal stormed to the top of the Premier League during the first half of that 2013/14 Premier League season. Aaron Ramsey, another previous young signing nurtured to good effect by Wenger, was in the best form of his Arsenal career, and the side were looking strong contenders for the Premier League title.
However, a Boxing Day injury would rule Ramsey out of action for the next three months, and with Arsenal, in pole position, it was the perfect opportunity to attract players to the club for one final push at an overdue Premier League title. Not a single signing of note was made, the void left by Ramsey's injury wasn't filled, and Manchester City went on to claim the title. Arsenal finished a disappointing fourth.
It was a season that would say everything about Wenger and his approach to transfers. While his rivals capitalised on his prudent approach, he let his best chance of lifting the Premier League title since 2004 slip through his grasp. A couple of additions to strengthen and freshen the squad, and cover the injured Ramsey, was all that was needed to maintain their form.
And so the decline slowly followed. A decade ago, Wenger lost his eyes and years in the boardroom as his close ally and biggest supporter David Dein departed the club. Dein had been instrumental in bringing Wenger to Arsenal in the summer of 1996, and it proved to be an inspired and revolutionary appointment for both the club and English football as a whole.
Dein was a football man as a much as he was a business mogul and complimented the articulate Wenger perfectly. If Dein had been present in January 2014 then things could have been very different, and the Premier League title may well have arrived at the Emirates Stadium. If Wenger should choose to reflect on his previous mistakes, they will be headlined by that particular transfer window.
However, Wenger will eventually leave Arsenal, and he will leave a long-standing legacy as the most influential manager in the history of the club. He ensured a smooth transition to the new stadium, an element of the game that has caused problems for his peers in recent seasons, and he has delivered silverware and defining moments in the history of the club.
But the modern game demands consistent success, and Wenger is currently managing a club on a downward spiral. He has had opportunities to take on new challenges elsewhere, both at the club and international level, but as he heads towards his 69th birthday later this year, such opportunities will start to become increasingly limited, despite his extensive experience.
Wenger has committed himself to Arsenal, but he must now justify his position over the course of the next month if he is to find redemption. He must invest to fix the obvious defensive flaws in his team, and should the expected departure of at least one of his key creative talents depart, he must spend heavily to ensure that they are suitably replaced.
On current form, it is likely that Arsenal will once again miss out on a coveted Champions League place, and with less financial reward comes less financial muscle to spend in the summer. The domino effect of such failure is likely to see Wenger succumb to the pressure and leave Arsenal at the end of next season, and just like 2014, it will be this transfer window that will prove to be his ultimate undoing.