Fresh off their worst league season in two decades, a disappointing Champions League campaign that, as it always seems to these days, ended with Bayern Munich pantsing them in front of the entire world, and coming off the most fervent instances of fan unrest due to the club’s sustained and arguably declining status as high-level also-rans—oh, but let’s not ignore the shiny new F.A. Cup the team won last weekend, too—Arsenal and Arsène Wenger have reportedly agreed on a new two-year contract that is set to be officially announced tomorrow. And thus Arsenal affirm their commitment to more of the same.
At this point, the pros and cons of Wenger’s continuance at Arsenal’s helm are well-trod subjects. Positives Wenger brings: stability, sustainable economic planning, a keen eye for unearthed gems, nearly impeccable track record of Champions League qualification, great relationship with his players. Cons: tactical strategy that regularly fails against big teams, reluctance to spend big on elite talent, unwillingness to offer pay raises to keep the elite talent he does have, inability to address these systemic and recurrent problems, failure to win anything of much consequence. But more than anything, the question posed to Arsenal here is this: are Arsenal an ambitious club or not?
This question is particularly salient in light of the new Premier League era, where the competition at the top of the table is deeper and more cutthroat than ever. Arsenal were once firmly behind Manchester United and Chelsea and more recently Manchester City in economic power, but were still ahead of the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool in talent and/or willingness to spend. Now, with Liverpool sparing no expense in their revanchist assault to regain their place as one of England’s greats, and Tottenham’s growing wealth and brilliant management that has produced probably the best coached young group of budding stars in the league, Arsenal can no longer rely on Wenger to keep the team punching slightly above its weight. His opponents are simply too big and too strong for that strategy to work as consistently as it has in the past.
Rummaging through Europe’s bargain bin, plucking up a handful of undervalued assets, and having Wenger coach them up in the fine tradition of clubbing the bottom two-thirds of the league’s teams while losing to the top few won’t be good enough to regularly qualify for the Champions League anymore, let alone challenge for the title—not when City and United and Chelsea and Liverpool and Tottenham all have better managers armed with squads that their clubs restock with record-breaking transfers every summer. Arsenal have tried The Wenger Way for more than 20 years now. At first it was wildly successful, then it impressively maintained a laudable if understandably trophy-free status quo, and of late has been exposed as out of touch and insufficient. And the forces that have led to Arsenal’s failures to mount credible challenges domestically and in Europe in this decade will only grow stronger in the near future.
Choosing to re-up Wenger is choosing to believe one of two things: that he is ready to make the changes necessary in order to compete at the top of the EPL, or that the way things have gone and probably will continue to go is good enough for the club. Believing the former—that not only will Arsenal, say, spend something like £150 million on a new striker, central midfielder, and central defender and also implement all of these pieces in an effective tactical set-up capable of besting the top and bottom halves of the league—seems... optimistic.
Arsenal probably will spend big on at least one new player this transfer window, and Wenger did adjust his longstanding formation preferences by implementing the 3-4-3 late in the year, so it’s not like there’s absolutely no hope. Still, though, counting on everything coming off just right—meaning Arsenal significantly improve their roster (it will be of little use if the club spends loads on a new striker if said striker is bought with funds from the very possible Alexis Sánchez sale) over and above the impending squad investments City and United and Chelsea and Liverpool are set to roll out this summer, and that the new tactical tweaks are a) maintained and b) work much better than they did this season (the Gunners actually looked shaky in the 3-4-3 formation in just about every match save their dominating performance in the F.A. Cup final)—does not look likely.
No, what’s more probable is that Arsenal will spend the next season treading water, struggling against the pull of the Europa League vortex in while trying to claw their way into fourth. Maybe they’ll win another F.A. Cup if they’re lucky, and they’ll probably be odds-on favorites to win the Europa League, so their chances of qualifying for the next season’s Champions League aren’t necessarily all that terrible. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see how another two or four or however many years of Wenger’s Arsenal will be anything other than a slow descent into further marginalization. Late-stage Wengerism’s whole M.O. has been that if everything breaks right, Arsenal might snatch away a title or two, and even if it doesn’t they can at least bank on finishing in the top four. Barring drastic, immediate changes, it now seems that the club’s status is on the brink of shifting down a level, with the club hoping for a fortuitous top-four spot, relying on a steady Europa League place, and not even dreaming of a realistic title challenge.
All this when Arsenal could be on the cusp of finally competing with England’s and maybe even Europe’s big boys due to their enviable financial position. The club and even the squad do not appear all that far away from pushing up a level. But by committing to a couple more years with Wenger, the club is either making it harder for themselves to make the jump, or admitting that they don’t even want to.