As Arsène moves toward his 1,000th game against Chelsea…Actually, it isn’t Wenger’s 1,000th game; that came a couple of seasons back but apparently friendlies don’t count and even if they do, you get into the semantics of whether the short-form games played at Southampton (and in Austria, if I recall correctly) count as matches or are halves. Even this early in the post, I have strayed from the point; it doesn’t bode well for the remaining 800 or so words, does it?
I was about to ponder who he would have chosen for the occasion? He would have preferred a home game, that’s for sure. Somewhere where the occasion could be properly marked rather than being in seething hotbed of Neanderthal rage. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to believe that he would have preferred anyone but Jose Mourinho as his opposite number – no matter what the opposition – knowing the Portugeezer will enjoy nothing more than pooping on the party. Although part of me suspects he will enjoy Mourinho being there as the marked contrast of their careers, their footballing philosophies will bring the Chelsea manager’s shortcomings even more sharply into focus.
Ahead of the game, Wenger has given himself a little present or two. Following on from retaining the services of Rosicky and Mertesacker, Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey have both committed themselves to the club for a longer term. In a week when the club’s cash reserves were once again bundled into the media spotlight, it is reassuring to see them exploiting the scope within the wages budget to reward the club’s top performing players. As much as we want to see the squad strengthened, it is vital that they do not take their corporate eyes off the ball as far as existing contracts are concerned. If the senior management at the club is to convince us that they are really crossing the Rubicon into the Promised Land of everlasting Premier League glory, we need to end the cycle whereby key players contracts are allowed to reach a point where the club’s hand is weakened.
I know that football contracts mean nothing. Managers get sacked, players are sold or force an exit; it’s the way of the world, it always has been and it always will be. The only thing that changes is who holds the power. It was the clubs, it is now the players and managers get caught somewhere in the middle. More towards the clubs end of things, I guess. However, there used to be a time when Arsenal were astute in contract negotiations, when players were committed to long deals and released when it suited us, not them. Fabregas’ departure changed that; I guess the door opened when Henry left for Barcelona but the young Spaniard did not so much barge through it as kick it down and splinter it in the process. That began a process where the club seemed to be in a weaker position, Flamini held the whip-hand at the time of his original departure. Alex Hleb likewise all the way through to Robin van Persie. The club was ineffective in retaining key players and when they should have kept them, a risible over-30s policy was in force and weakened the squad further. We know the reasons put forward for the whys but cash has not been as tight over the years as some claim.
This season has marked a change in the contract situation with a pro-activeness on the club’s part which has brought results. They might have been pro-active previously but the outcomes were different unless you were a squad player who gleefully accepted the riches that the “socialist” wage structure offered. As if anything if football could be called socialist. It has still not worked out well as yesterday’s discussion on Bacary Sagna indicated and to be fair to the club, whatever they do, someone will be critical of it such is the nature of the footballing beast.
Of course no discussion on the contract situation is complete without referring to the manager himself. Wenger, Ivan Gazidis, gleefully announced, would be signing a new deal soon. That was a few months ago and he has not committed himself to a deal. I think Jeremy Wilson called it correctly at the AST meeting earlier in the week when he suggested that Arsène was waiting to see how the season panned out before committing himself to another three or four years. Why not? He has earned the right and enough doubts were expressed last year to bring about the Frenchman’s wrath with the false suggestion a new deal had been agreed. To the chagrin of his most ardent supporters, may be he too had doubts about whether he could take the club to the next level, the one to which he aspired when the financial strength became apparent. A sheen is sprayed over the situation, one where he never doubts himself or his abilities. That suggests an insularity which his education and experience is completely at odds with.
Arsenal have improved so far this season. Remaining in contention – even if I don’t think we will win the title – at this stage is a marked improvement on last year. We might end up fourth again, fading away as one or two teams hit form, in which case Arsène may well question whether he can inspire the players to step up. The FA Cup is firmly in the club’s grasp, it genuinely is theirs to throw away with the weakness of the remaining semi-finalists. But we have been there before, against Birmingham at Wembley. There are signs that improved performance is in the air but we won’t know for sure until the final whistle after the final match of the season. And there are still weaknesses to be addressed in the squad itself; maybe Arsène doesn’t like the way football is going, particularly with the ease with which other clubs are able to flaunt the FFP regulations.
Of course it is speculation on my part and only Arsène truly knows what his thoughts are on the subject. Delays in signing new contracts are nothing new with him, he has met with other clubs in years gone by as well. It is his choice ultimately and if he decides to leave, at least he has left the club in a better shape than Ferguson did with United.