The 2016-17 season proved the most challenging period for Wenger in his Arsenal career because the fans turned against him while the board was reluctant to back him. Despite the criticism in the news media, the uncertainty around the squad and a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Premier League, Wenger has been handed a two-year contract extension. Let’s see what that means for the Gunners.
- The club structure is still an issue
The board missed an opportunity to fix structural flaws at the club. The timing would have been perfect this summer to prepare the transition and create the position of sporting director. You wouldn’t expect a manager to simultaneously supervise the squad, the youth teams, the recruitment and the scouting. That’s too much work for one person, especially in a big club. Yet, that’s pretty much what Wenger does at Arsenal. And I think it’s counterproductive.
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Big clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, PSG and Manchester City have a sporting director helping the manager. It’s important to understand that the manager should not be accountable to the sporting director. Both are like teammates. The sporting director should remove some workload off the manager’s shoulders so that the manager can focus on the game and the squad.
It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s most successful era occurred when Dein was a vice-chairman on the board. Dein had a great knowledge of football and basically acted as a de facto sporting director by facilitating transfers and keeping an eye on the youth teams. It was the complementarity between Dein and Wenger that propelled the club to success. Nowadays, nobody on the board is knowledgeable enough to challenge Wenger’s views and provide a different perspective.
- Recruitment and scouting are still erratic departments
The recruitment and scouting departments have underperformed in the past few years. It might be a consequence of the flaws in the club structure. The Gunners haven’t signed any hidden gem lately. Don’t start mentioning Holding because at this stage of his career he’s just a prospect who wouldn’t be in the starting lineup if everybody was fit. When I say hidden gem, I mean players like Kante and Alli who had a major impact in their first Premier League season.
There have been at least two scouting mistakes since 2014. Signing Chambers from Southampton for about 17 million pounds was quite puzzling. That’s the kind of fee you would pay for a starter, but not for a prospect. To put things in context, Chambers cost more than Koscielny and Paulista. At 22, Chambers still has room to improve, but three flaws won’t change: his slow first steps, his inability to quickly turn and his weakness in the air. In my eyes, Chambers is a decent fit for an average team but not good enough for a club chasing a Champions League spot.
Another weird signing was Elneny, hired from Basel for about 10.5 million pounds. Arsenal needed a ballwinner at that time. Instead, the Gunners signed a utility midfielder. It might be OK to get the profile wrong if the player has great skills. Unfortunately, Elneny is not a decisive player. Defensively, he doesn’t win many tackles or duels. And offensively, he doesn’t make assists or score goals. Elneny’s main asset is his passing accuracy, which can prove useful to keep a high tempo against the weak sides but is not enough against the big teams.
An underwhelming recruitment has been the main reason for Arsenal’s inability to contend in the Premier League. Everybody knows the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. It’s the same with transfers. You need to act quickly to sign the best players who are available. You also need a decent number of players to fill the holes in the squad. And finally, the quality of those new signings must be good enough to improve the team.
Let’s analyse the last 4 transfer windows. In the summer of 2013, the Gunners signed Sanogo on July 1, Flamini on Aug. 29 and Ozil on Sept. 2. The timing was poor since Flamini and Ozil were not even available on opening day. As a prospect, Sanogo could not be the answer in the centerforward position. And of the three players, only Ozil was top quality.
The summer of 2014 was arguably the club’s best transfer window over the past four years. Arsenal signed Sanchez on July 10, Debuchy on July 17, Ospina on July 27, Chambers on July 28 and Welbeck on Sept. 2. The timing and the quantity were fine. The only question mark was about the quality with Sanchez as the only top signing on paper.
The summer of 2015 was undoubtedly the worst transfer window. the Gunners signed Cech on June 29 and that was it. The squad was not competitive enough because there were too many holes in it. That poor recruitment campaign allowed Leicester to win the league against all the odds.
Last year, the club signed Xhaka on May 25, Holding on July 22, and Perez and Mustafi on Aug. 30. The quality was decent and the quantity right, but the timing was poor as Perez and Mustafi could only make their Arsenal debut in September. Maybe the Gunners would have not dropped five points in the first two games of the season if Perez and Mustafi had joined in July.
The comparison with Manchester United and City really hurts as Mourinho and Guardiola acted much faster than Wenger. United signed Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, Bailly and Pogba before opening day while Stones, Sane, Gundogan and Nolito joined City before the first game of the season.
- The Gunners won’t be contenders
Arsenal signed Schalke leftback Kolasinac on June 6 and Lyon striker Lacazette on July 5, but it will take more than two signings for Arsenal to have a shot at the Premier League title. Wenger tends to be too optimistic in the assessment of his squad. As a result, he fails to identify all the weaknesses in the squad and becomes reluctant to clear the dead wood.
First, the Gunners need a defensive midfielder. They currently don’t have a destroyer like Petit or Gilberto to effectively shield the defense. In his first season at the club, Wenger played a back three with Adams, Keown and Bould as centerbacks and Dixon and Winterburn as wingbacks. It’s only after signing Petit in the summer of 1997 that the manager was able to switch to a back four.
And second, the Gunners should sign a creative midfielder to make up for Cazorla’s long-term absence. The Spaniard could be sidelined until November. At 32, there’s no guarantee that Cazorla will rediscover his form. The end of his Arsenal career could echo Arteta’s last couple of seasons at the club. On paper, Wilshere would look like a natural replacement but he doesn’t have Cazorla’s defensive awareness and his fitness could be a concern too.
- A perfect storm for players’ contracts
Quite a few Gunners haven’t signed any extension yet although their contracts end in 2018. The most obvious cases are Sanchez and Ozil, whose wage demands exceed 250,000 pounds a week. It is not just a matter of money. Sanchez and Ozil both feel that the club is lacking ambition. They could ask for a move if they think that the squad is not strong enough to contend for the title. And we would end up with a situation very similar to what happened in 2011 when Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy left the club before Van Persie and Song also jumped off the ship the following year.
If Sanchez and Ozil can’t be tied to the club beyond 2018, then it might be better to sell them this summer. If it was up to me, I would sell Walcott and Sanchez but keep Perez and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Bayern Munich and Manchester City are among the clubs interested in Sanchez, who’s got the highest resale value of all the squad members. Obviously, it would be better to sell Sanchez to a German club so that it doesn’t backfire on Arsenal. But Bayern Munich seemed to have balked at the player’s wage demands.
Lacazette and Perez would be natural replacements for Sanchez as both are strikers who score a lot of goals and make a lot of assists. They also have plenty of pace and good dribbling and passing skills. However, Perez has been unhappy about the lack of opportunities last season, especially when Giroud and Welbeck were injured, as Wenger preferred to give the nod to Walcott or Iwobi. His omission from the squad touring Australia and China could hint at his departure this summer.
Selling Ozil would be more tricky. First, he has a lower resale value than Sanchez. And second, there’s no natural replacement in the squad for the Germany playmaker: Cazorla plays in a deeper position while Wilshere is not as prolific for assists as Ozil. Of course, that would become a different story if the Gunners sign Lemar from Monaco.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere and Gibbs also have their contracts ending next year. Money is not really the issue here. The key factor is their playing time. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs need to play regularly in order to shine and catch the attention of the England manager. Another factor is Wenger’s declining aura after a disappointing season. The Ox, Wilshere and Gibbs must be frustrated when they see other players improve under Klopp, Pochettino and Guardiola and snatch starting spots in the England team. They might think that they would perform better under a different manager. Arsenal will let Gibbs go after signing Kolasinac last month.
- Arsenal will stick to the 3-4-3 formation
The Gunners conceded a lot of goals last season because their midfield was not strong enough to protect the defense and because the back four was flawed: Bellerin lacked consistency because of injury and transfer rumors, Monreal and Gibbs struggled to stop dangerous crosses from the left flank, and Mustafi performed poorly in the second half of the season. It took a shift to a back three to stop the bleeding. Unless the club signs a world-class ballwinner, Arsenal would still be too vulnerable with a back four against strong and even average teams.
- Tension with some fans won’t go away
Some fans turned against the team when Arsenal had a poor run of form in the winter. The ‘Wenger Out’ brigade seemed to make it personal by deliberately hurting the club with hostile chants and banners to get Wenger sacked. In my eyes, that attitude was completely wrong. Chelsea and Leicester were flirting with relegation when Mourinho and Ranieri were dismissed. Yet, neither Mourinho nor Ranieri suffered such abuse from the Chelsea and Leicester fans. By contrast, the Gunners were always in the Top 6 last season.
The main problem with such a hostile behavior is that it puts off a lot of players by instilling fear and anxiety in them. Nobody wants to play in that kind of atmosphere. And players may think twice before signing a contract at the Emirates.
Now that the board has made its choice clear, the fans have to stand by the team, which means no protest for this upcoming season unless the Gunners are stuck in a relegation battle. In the final year of Wenger’s contract, if the fans want to put some pressure on the board to hire a new manager, then empty seats at the Emirates and protests outside the stadium would be the only decent options. Displaying hostile banners and shouting hostile chants inside the stadium would be like scoring an own goal.
I have no doubt that the Wenger issue will come back in the 2018-19 season. The board had no serious replacement for Wenger this year and therefore extended his contract. They will have to anticipate and act more decisively in a year and half. Finding the right successor is a long process and should leave no room to improvisation as Moyes’ failure at Manchester United showed.