Arsenal might have tumbled out of the title race, but there is still plenty to play for. Between now and the end of the season, the Gunners are still aiming for two potential prizes: the FA Cup and qualification for the Champions League.
For the fans, the FA Cup is the undoubted priority. After nine years without a trophy, the hunger for silverware is palpable. Arsenal have not won anything since lifting the FA Cup in 2005. There would be a neat symmetry if they could break their prolonged duck in the same competition.
However, the bigger question is: Which of those two potential rewards would mean most to Arsene Wenger? At the end of the season, he will sit down and decide whether or not he feels he is the right man to take Arsenal forward. He recently told John Cross of The Mirror, “I want to have a feeling coming out of the season that that I have done the maximum for the club.”
Which one of those two achievements would enable him to feel justified in his position?
He must desperately want to win a trophy. Arsenal’s fallow period has raised questions over Wenger’s ability. There are those among the Arsenal support who fear he has lost the killer instinct that made him a winner. Wenger would take a good deal of satisfaction from proving those people wrong.
He knows too that the FA Cup could be the start of something. Once the winning habit is ingrained in this team, it could help them in their quest to bring more trophies to that malnourished Arsenal trophy cabinet. It would also buy him time with the more disgruntled sections of Arsenal’s fanbase.
However, personally, he probably puts more stock in the Champions League. Wenger prides himself on the remarkably consistency of finishing in the top four year on year. He has some degree of justification: The league table is ultimately the best measure of a team’s capabilities. That said, it’s hard to get too excited about a fourth-place finish. There’s certainly no trophy involved, otherwise Arsenal’s marble halls would be brimming with silverware.
The Champions League is also important for financial reasons. It enables Arsenal to pay the bills and invest in new talent. If the Gunners do make it in to Europe’s elite competition, they will need to spend big again in order to stay there.
It’s worth pointing out that these two things are not mutually exclusive: It’s perfectly possible for Arsenal to achieve both. At this stage, that would be an ideal situation.
If forced to choose, Wenger the eternal economist might opt for a top-four finish. However, the fans’ longing for the tangible reward of a trophy is such that failure to win the FA Cup could spark a revolt. For everybody to be happy, Wenger may need to deliver on two fronts.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report’s lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here.