Arsenal’s FA Cup Final victory over Chelsea, and 18 points from the final six matches of the Premier League season, revealed a lot not just about the quality of the players at the Emirates but about the hunger, drive and ability to inspire of a man who many accused of being stale and out of ideas.
Let’s be clear, some of the abuse and criticism which Wenger had to face was totally unjustified for someone who has given so much to the club and to English football; and yet he dealt with it all with remarkable diplomacy off the pitch and found a way to drive his players on it through a hugely challenging period which could so easily have ended in disaster. It’s too easy to say ‘same old Arsenal’ came good at the end of the season when the title was already lost and the pressure off.
This time the pressure was most definitely on — more on than it has ever been — and yet Wenger had the leadership qualities to deal with it. In defiance of his critics he found a way to be flexible by changing the system, found a way to inspire players who must have heard it all before so many times and found a way to get results when it really mattered.
That kind of management cannot be thrown away easily. Look through Arsenal’s history under Wenger and you’ll find they rarely lost three games in a row, it’s one of the Frenchman’s specialities to reinvigorate his team in difficult times. To still have that capacity after more than 20 years at the same club suggests it is too early for him to go. There is more for him to achieve in north London.
Arsenal have taken a lot of stick over the last season but the criticism has masked several areas of significant progress. They finished the season with more points than the previous year (when they were second in the table), coped with an ugly atmosphere on and off the pitch and finished it with a series of team-defining moments which culminated in a rare victory over Chelsea at Wembley.
By recreating the ‘us against the world’ mentality which once drove George Graham’s Gunners to success (and which built Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea) Arsenal won nine of the last 10 games of the campaign, with only defeat at White Hart Lane blotting the copybook.
That run included victory at Stoke — where Arsenal have so often found it difficult, victories over Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United (ending an accusation that they cannot beat the big boys) and a win over Everton in which they spent almost the entire game with 10 men (ending talk that they have no backbone).
All those psychological boosts should set up Arsenal well for next season and Wenger deserves to be the man who reaps the benefits.
Tony Adams may think that Wenger ‘couldn’t coach his way out of a paper bag’ but evidence points to a different conclusion. Several players at the Emirates made significant progress in their careers this season. Wenger, for instance, found a way to get goals out of assist-master Mesut Ozil (he scored 12), transformed the contribution of Alexis Sanchez by altering his position on the pitch (he contributed 30 goals), gave Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain new energy as a wing-back, developed the talent of Rob Holding who looks a real prospect at centre-back and got goals and more impact out of Theo Walcott from a wide position.
The wider picture is important, too. It may be 2004 since Wenger won a league title but his overall achievements still leave him as Arsenal’s greatest manager — and even in the ‘barren’ years he has managed four FA Cups and two Community Shields. Who, aside from Herbert Chapman and George Graham, can even compete with that?
Wenger has waited, patiently, an awful long time for a moment when Arsenal’s finances are so secure that they can challenge to sign world class players.
Already he has burst the myth that he doesn’t like to spend money by bringing Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to the Emirates, now there is another opportunity to bring in significant signings this summer and also to extend the contract of key players who have been waiting to find out his future.
By staying, Wenger will give Arsenal a better chance of keeping Ozil and Sanchez (talks are already underway) and also be able to lead the search for new signings which started more than a year ago.
You only have to look at what happened at Old Trafford after Alex Ferguson’s retirement to know that the process of finding a successor for Wenger will be hugely important to the club’s future and, in all honesty, will need more consideration than can be found in two summer months at the end of a frenetic season.
The appointment of David Moyes cost United three years — and Arsenal cannot afford to pay the same price.
By extending his contract Wenger gives the club time to prepare properly for his inevitable departure in the long term and provide an opportunity for two more shots at a Premier League title win which would seal his legacy.