Arsene Wenger’s life is never dull.
The past few weeks have been spent on the training ground, shoring up an Arsenal defence which was threatening to undermine the club’s resurgent attacking potential. Tonight, he will look for his side to ease past Belgium’s Anderlecht to almost certainly secure their progress to the last 16 of the Champions League, before they contemplate how to bridge the nine-point chasm to Chelsea at the top of the Premier League.
Then, the Frenchman will sit down with Theo Walcott to thrash out the details of a new contract. The England international, who is expected to be on the bench at the Emirates tonight as he continues his recovery from a cruciate knee ligament injury, is out of contract in the summer of 2016.
In the modern game that means the next six months are prime negotiation time, as Wenger is well aware.
“It is never an easy job with him, you know,” said Wenger with a smile, as he recalled the drawn-out negotiations that preceded Walcott inking his last deal, in January 2013.
“We are starting to sit down with him. It should be his peak years now. He is 25 so it is the best years. Hopefully we can profit from that.”
Progress to the last 16 of the Champions League for a 15th consecutive year would certainly help negotiations, and that will be secured if Arsenal beat Anderlecht and Galatasaray fail to win at Borussia Dortmund.
That they are in such a position is a surprise after their woeful defeat to Dortmund in their opening game.
But what will excite Wenger is the fact that his makeshift defence is suddenly looking far more secure. Thirteen goals were conceded in their first eight Premier League games, but successive clean sheets against Sunderland and Burnley have given hope Calum Chambers, Per Mertesacker, Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs can provide more consistency. With Monreal and — to a lesser extent — Chambers both playing out of position, it is a surprise they have been able to do so.
In fact, it brings to mind the unlikely back four of Emmanuel Eboue, Philippe Senderos, Kolo Toure and Mathieu Flamini that was sometimes called upon as Arsenal kept a record 10 clean sheets on the way to the 2006 Champions League final.
But Wenger knows Sunderland and Burnley do not pose the sternest of tests. “We have not to go overboard,” he said. “I am an attacking manager but when you need to score four goals to win the game, it is a hell of a mountain to climb. To attack with freedom you need as well to feel ‘look I can go and we will be secure defensively.’ In the modern game as well, because the physical level has gone up, the teams are quicker in position to defend.
“You cannot every time guarantee you will score three or four goals in every game. I don’t think teams attack much better but they defend much better than 10 years ago.”
Arsenal have exited the competition at the last 16 in each of the last four seasons, facing tough draws after finishing second in their groups. That makes overhauling Dortmund at the top of Group D absolutely vital.
“It is always better you finish first,” said Wenger. “Somewhere you feel guilty if you don’t finish first and you think if you are punished, it is (deserved) as you finished second. We will not (take our foot off the gas).”
Wenger said yesterday he was “at the end of the tunnel” on the injury front, with Olivier Giroud close to joining Walcott in returning and absentees Mesut Ozil, Laurent Koscielny and Mathieu Debuchy progressing well. Then there’ll really be no excuses.
ARSENAL (probable): Szczesny, Chambers, Mertesacker, Monreal, Gibbs, Arteta, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Sanchez, Welbeck.
ANDERLECHT (probable): Proto, Vanden Borre, Mbemba, Deschacht, Acheampong, Tielemans, Dendoncker, Najar, Praet, Conte, Cyriac.