LONDON – Two more years, what can it bring? Only more pain for Arsene Wenger and a threat to his fabulous legacy.
That is what those close to Wenger fear. It is the reason so many people with affection for the Arsenal manager, including former players, hoped he might bid farewell after the FA Cup final.
He is determined to go on. It must be difficult to turn your back on a life’s work, but after revolutionising English football, creating Arsenal’s training ground, their academy and a stylish stadium, what next?
More trophies? Flowing football? Good times like the old times? Or simply an end to the ‘horrendous’ environment? How does he achieve that? This team feels an awful long way from challenging for the big prizes.
Next season, Arsenal must tilt at the title since they will not contest the Champions League. The Europa League will not help, and will probably hinder this quest.
The FA Cup is worth winning and Wenger’s seven triumphs are remarkable, but it does not stand for progress in a year when his side slipped out of the elite.
This Arsenal team feel some distance from being champions, and a good deal further if they are to lose Alexis Sanchez. At 35, how long is left for Petr Cech at the top level? Will Laurent Koscielny ever be rid of his calf and achilles injuries?
Wenger has spent years without success searching for central defenders to provide a solid base for his adventurous team.
Rob Holding’s progress is encouraging in the back-three system adopted for the end-of-season sequence of nine wins in 10 games. Was the formation a short-term fix? Does Wenger recruit players to enhance this system, or does it depend who is available?
Lack of presence in midfield remains an issue unsolved by Mohamed Elneny, Granit Xhaka or Francis Coquelin, and a genuine top-class centre forward has been on the shopping list since Robin van Persie was sold in 2012.
Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea would only covet Sanchez and Hector Bellerin, and it is better to leave the Mesut Ozil debate for another day.
The squad needs overhauling, but Arsenal have lost their clout in the transfer market. No longer are they first off the mark to sign the stars of tomorrow. Nor can they outbid wealthier rivals.
Arsenal are shopping in the second tier for the likes of Sead Kolasinac, a left back lined up on a free from Schalke. Even with tweaks to the scouting and recruitment operation, it is difficult to see how this changes.
This time next year, clouds of uncertainty will gather again unless a succession plan is unveiled with an heir apparent, or Wenger extends his tenure more decisively than he did this year.
He cannot be accused of lacking courage, striding on with popular opinion split. But the pressure is on like never before for Arsenal’s greatest manager. He is gambling with his legacy.