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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Arsenal begin new football season at a crossroads under Arsene Wenger

Make immediate return to top four and last season will be considered anomaly, or stay out of it, which will signal club are on decline.

Arsene Wenger holding aloft the FA Cup trophy at the end of last season. Wenger led his side to silverware but they slipped out of the Premier League top four. Agencies
Arsene Wenger holding aloft the FA Cup trophy at the end of last season. Wenger led his side to silverware but they slipped out of the Premier League top four. Agencies

For once, the great advocate of stability and continuity wants change. Not in the dugout – his new two-year deal ensures otherwise – but in the standings because maintaining the status quo no longer suffices. Arsene Wenger was the guarantee of Uefa Champions League football, but last season he inverted his old adage that fourth place was like a trophy. Arsenal secured actual silverware, but not their habitual berth in the elite quartet. Their run of Groundhog seasons came to an end.

It suggests a club at a crossroads. Make an immediate return to the top four and last season can be dismissed as an anomaly in a period of great consistency. Wenger’s ratio of top-four finishes has dropped from 100 per cent to 95, but it remains remarkable. His formula may not deliver titles, but it has tended to be a winning one in terms of securing Champions League revenue.

But the other scenario is that this becomes the new norm. Having always been in the top four, Arsenal are always out of it. Viewed that way, Wenger is a fading force, the Gunners a club in decline. Whichever, it promises to be a perception-defining campaign.

Last time Arsenal met Chelsea

Arsenal are unlikely to be transformed. Wenger is no longer the revolutionary he once was, but he looks for a return to type. Perhaps little needs to be done. Last season Arsenal procured 75 points, a record for fifth place. Perhaps it is simply a case of incremental improvement, of building upon the run of eight wins in their final nine games and avoiding a repeat of the troubled spell that preceded it.

Arsenal's season depends in large part to whether Alexis Sanchez stays at the club. Sean Dempsey / EPA
Arsenal's season depends in large part to whether Alexis Sanchez stays at the club. Sean Dempsey / EPA

There is a fragility to either argument, much of it revolving around Alexis Sanchez. Keep the Chilean, even with his potential departure on a free transfer next summer, and it is entirely plausible Arsenal’s short-termist stance will be rewarded with a top-four finish. Lose arguably the league’s best player and even if a blue-chip replacement - perhaps Thomas Lemar or Riyad Mahrez - arrives and it is altogether harder to see Arsenal climb the table.

For what it is worth, Wenger has been adamant the dynamic, driven, but unsettled forward is staying, but strangely he deemed it “ideal” that eight players are out of contact next year. They include Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, both in a limbo of their own choosing, meaning the paragons of permanence are in an uncharacteristic state of flux. If Arsenal have to convince Wenger’s doubters, they have to win over their own players.

Also read: Jon Turner writes why Ozil needs greater consistency

So it is a season with a difference. They have to master the Thursday-Sunday routine the Europa League demands. They also have to demonstrate that their spring surge with the back three Wenger eschewed for 20 years is something sustainable. Sead Kolasinac, the summer signing from Schalke, looks a forceful first-choice left wing-back. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s proficiency on the both flanks makes it more important he stays.

More significant than the personnel is the organisation. Can the laissez-faire Wenger produce a back three drilled as rigorously as Antonio Conte’s or Mauricio Pochettino’s? Arsenal conceded 44 goals last season which, like their total of seven away defeats, is simply too many.

Also read: Richard Jolly writes Chelsea immediate test of new tricks learnt by Arsenal

Wenger’s faith in his players is a constant. It means clearouts are rarities, opportunities for redemption regular. Granit Xhaka represents a particularly intriguing case in point. The Swiss international’s decidedly erratic tackling rendered his first year in London a mixed affair. His passing offered encouragement, his FA Cup final combination with Aaron Ramsey a potential partnership of two players who overpowered Chelsea then but flattered to deceive too often beforehand.

Aaron Ramsey's potential

Xhaka was billed as the defensive midfielder Arsenal needed when he was recruited last summer. Wenger was slow to accede to the popular demand to buy one, just as he long resisted the suggestions to sign a frontline striker. Alexandre Lacazette’s eventual arrival should end the job-share between Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck and Sanchez.

The Frenchman’s club-record £53 million (Dh253.8m) fee was a statement of intent, albeit one that was overshadowed by others’ spending and which could be negated by events involving Sanchez. Yet that saga is a sign the stakes have been raised: this has the feel of a make-or-break season.

Genuine change is unlikely to come until Wenger retires, but the immediate question is if Arsenal can effect the marginal gains to recreate the recent past.

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