"I know we have not won a trophy for four years but we have been very close. I believe this team, this year, will do it. When I say that, it is not to please [supporters] but because I am really convinced of it.”—Arsene Wenger speaking on Oct. 22, 2009.
Wenger spoke with such conviction in October about his faith in his team, but with just three games before the end of the season Arsenal’s faint hopes of winning a trophy have finally been extinguished.
After a run of defeats at the hands of an inspired Argentinian, their North London rivals and three goals in the final 10 minutes against Wigan Athletic, Wenger must reflect on another season without silverware, as the banner on the Emirates Stadium must wait to fill the gap after their 2005 FA Cup victory.
It is a disappointing end for a season which has seen a number of positives, including the emergence of Thomas Vermaelen and Alexandre Song, the success of a new 4-2-3-1 formation, and a mental toughness to remain in the title race despite crushing defeats against Chelsea and Manchester United and a crippling injury list.
Injuries are part and parcel of football yet they have been particularly cruel on Wenger’s side—who have been robbed of Robin Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, William Gallas, and Theo Walcott for large parts of the season.
Yet Chelsea have missed Michael Essien and Ashley Cole for large parts of the season, while Manchester United have been deprived of first-choice pairing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, so injuries need not be an excuse.
But for Arsene Wenger, there is only one fact that matters—that his side has once again come up short in the final reckoning.
While the club’s reliance on makeshift personnel both in defence and attack is understandable given their injury list, in hindsight the decision to enter the season with only Mikael Silvestre and Nicklas Bendtner as recognised, injury-free replacements appears flawed.
For all the improvements his team has made this year, the key to Arsenal making the step from also-rans to achievers next year may depend on the moves Wenger makes to strengthen his squad.
Quite how much money is available for Wenger remains a mystery, with figures quoted ranging from £25 million up to as much as £60 million.
Given that the club must still prioritise on their £20 million annual repayment on loans from the Emirates Stadium construction, perhaps a lower-end figure is more realistic—but even so, Wenger must reinforce areas of the squad which have been exposed this season.
The top priority will be a new goalkeeper, as Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski have proved this week that both remain a weak link too readily exploited by the opposition.
While Arsenal fans may pray for a move for a keeper of sufficient calibre such as Hugo Lloris, Igor Akinfeev, or Joe Hart, all three are likely to cost the kind of princely sums which Arsene Wenger usually avoids.
Given the Frenchman's eye for a bargain, what price could you put on a move for Fulham’s in-form veteran Mark Schwarzer with promising Polish keeper Wojciech Szcecsny learning from the bench?
Meanwhile, despite the fine partnership that William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen formed in the early season, the need for reinforcement in defence is urgent given the over-reliance on the aging Sol Campbell and Mikael Silvestre.
Wenger will hope that the return of Johan Djourou helps solve the issue, yet he is returning from serious injury and faces a tough enough road to recovery without facing extra pressure.
The challenge for Wenger will be to re-sign Gallas and perhaps the rehabilitated Campbell, whose contracts are set to expire in the summer.
But he must also acquire a defender whose best years are in front of him such as Borussia Dortmund’s Neven Subotic, Bolton's Gary Cahill, or Manchester City target Dennis Boateng to strengthen an obvious area of weakness.
The imminent arrival of Marouane Chamakh will help solve the club’s over-reliance on Robin Van Persie and the developing Nicklas Bendtner, while Wenger must decide on the long-term futures of disappointing strike duo Carlos Vela and Eduardo.
Beyond that, this summer will be spent fighting off interest in the likes of Bakary Sagna, Robin Van Persie, and the highly-coveted Cesc Fabregas, but Wenger must also tackle a wider issue within his squad.
Against the highest calibre opposition, Arsenal have struggled to assert themselves and ultimately appeared impotent, suggesting that while their doggedness to remain in the title race is admirable, a mental tardiness against the bigger teams still exists throughout the squad—something Wenger will be keen to eradicate.
But Wenger himself may want to revisit his dismissal of the domestic cups as “not proper trophies,” which is a laughable notion given that the FA Cup was the last trophy Arsenal won under the Frenchman.
Besides, it is precisely these trophies which enable clubs to build a tradition of success—as both Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United sides have done recently.
Giving players an experience of winning trophies—even domestic cups—can help build up a culture of success, which for all his expertise in player development, even Wenger cannot teach.
Because as the club enters its fifth year without a trophy—their longest barren spell since 1987—Wenger, a born winner himself, will be keen to right the one thing which has been missing from his recent tenure at the club.
This will be especially important next season, especially with Wenger’s contract set to expire. As Wenger said on Friday: “I have one more year and I will respect that year then we see where we are.
“I want to do well for this club, I do not want to be here because I have done well before and do not do well any more.”
Yet the emphasis is now on the Frenchman himself to act decisively this summer should he want to "do well" again.
Arsenal will continue to attract plaudits for their attractive football under Wenger, but at some point aesthetics must give way to achievement, something even the Frenchman will concede.
As he contemplates another season without silverware, he must realise that much-needed changes are necessary both on and off the pitch this summer to ensure that Arsenal win the silverware both he and the club so badly crave.
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