At some point, we need to consider that this could be Arsene Wenger’s valedictory season at Arsenal. After 20 years in north London, the Frenchman is out of contract next summer. The 66-year-old might decide that this is the right time to bow out at the Emirates.
His reaction to questions about the England job after the Champions League match against Basel was instructive. Normally, Wenger shoots down questions about his future; this time, he admitted that he was flattered by the links. He was relaxed after the 2-0 victory and happy to play along with a reporter’s question about knowing the words to “God Save The Queen.”
The Arsenal manager’s mood is mainly determined by results, but even after the team’s fine first-half performance, his demeanour was unusual. He appeared to be flirting with the FA over the England role.
Time will tell whether Wenger will move on from Arsenal. The more pertinent question is whether his team are equipped to put in a title challenge. After seven games of the Premier League season, it seems that Wenger could have put together a side with the potential to bring the trophy back to the Emirates for the first time in 12 years.
Cynics will look at Sunday’s fortunate 1-0 victory away to Burnley and dismiss Arsenal’s credentials as contenders. It was not the team’s finest performance, yet the Gunners have steadily improved the first two months of the season.
The key to success for this squad was always going to be the contribution of Wenger’s pair of superstars, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. The final phase of the manager’s tenure was always going to be defined by how the duo performed in Arsenal shirts, and so far, they have not really justified the outlay of nearly £80 million.
That could change. Wenger has adapted their roles this season, and individually and as a combination, they look significantly more dangerous. Sanchez is playing in the striker’s role. It gives him the opportunity to use his prodigious energy and anticipation to unnerve defenders. He is a one-man high press, and centre-backs dare not dwell on the ball with the Chilean around. He adds vigour up front, where Olivier Giroud (who has plenty of different qualities) looked lethargic.
Ozil has been deployed behind him. This gives the German the chance to play in a position where he can hurt the opposition. It limits his passing range more than a deeper role, but playing in the final third means the killer ball is available more often for the 27-year-old. Ozil’s subtlety and incisiveness come to the fore. It also puts less pressure on the World Cup winner to track back, which has never been his strongest point.
This puts greater responsibility on the attacking midfielders, but Alex Iwobi and Theo Walcott are thriving with that responsibility. Iwobi’s workrate, intelligence and movement make him appear far more experienced than the 20-year-old he is. He shows fearlessness and humility on the pitch and will put in a shift for the side. Walcott, meanwhile, gives great balance. There have been too many false dawns in the 27-year-old’s career to get too excited about his early-season form, but Wenger seems to have found a system that suits him. It accentuates his pace and offers him the chance to get into scoring positions.
Another pairing shaping up nicely is the deep-lying combination of Santi Cazorla and Granit Xhaka. Sitting deeper than the front four, they spark attacks but also break up the opposition’s pattern of play. They allow the full-backs to range forward and take turns slotting between the central defenders. The Spaniard and the Swiss don’t talk enough, a problem across the pitch for Arsenal, but if they improve their communication, they could form an impressive bulwark for the team.
The back four have been a source of nervousness for Wenger for more than a decade, with the lack of a strong centre-back pairing serving as an ongoing problem and a source of frustration for fans. But the early indications are that Shkodran Mustafi might go some way to ending the concerns. Laurent Koscielny looks stronger and more confident alongside the German, and with Petr Cech directing operations behind them, Arsenal look stronger through the middle.
The full-backs have been in good form too. Hector Bellerin is quick and uses the ball well. Nacho Monreal is effective enough. They both have a tendency to overcommit going forward, but the composition of this team gives them more protection than in previous seasons. It is not as easy to break behind Arsenal when they use this formation.
Manchester City and Liverpool have played stunning attacking football but are unbalanced. Both of these free-scoring sides can be got at in midfield and defence. Tottenham Hotspur are organized and extremely disciplined tactically. Arsenal’s coherence and shape are second only to that of Spurs. Wenger has a real platform on which to build a great season.
There are caveats, though. Arsenal are not a team of talkers. Sanchez and Ozil should use their status to rally their teammates and jolt them out of complacency before things go wrong. Instead, they seem self-absorbed and display dreadful body language when their colleagues make mistakes or the flow of the game goes against them.
They also miss too many chances. The team might be more effective without Giroud, but they lack a cutting edge. Sanchez needs to be more clinical, and Ozil has to chip in with more goals.
Arsenal switch off before games have been put away — 2-0 never feels like a safe lead for them — and can be rattled easily when opponents pull a goal back. They are a side whose confidence can drain quickly. Yet the potential for success at the Emirates is massive. When they work as a unit, they are cohesive; only Spurs are more coherent. Wenger’s squad gives him options too.
Whether this is the Frenchman’s last chance to win the title at Arsenal is anyone’s guess. What is clear, however, is that this group and this system give Wenger the best opportunity he has had in a long time.
Leicester firmly focused on Europe this season
This weekend saw another poor result for Leicester City. Claudio Ranieri even said that Southampton deserved the points after the 0-0 draw at the King Power Stadium.
Why is this happening? Champions League weeks give a fair indication of where Leicester’s minds are this year. Before each of the European ties so far, Leicester have been beaten 4-1, first by Liverpool and then by Manchester United. They went on to beat Brugge 3-0 and Porto 1-0 in their subsequent European matches.
It might not be a conscious decision, but Europe is the priority for the players this season. It’s hard to blame them, and they’ll still be a top-10 side in the league by season’s end.
Villa are wasting their potential
There is so much potential at Aston Villa, but the club needs a huge overhaul. They started it by changing the recruitment staff, and it is continuing with the dismissal of Roberto Di Matteo. Villa should be challenging for the playoffs, not limping along three places above the relegation zone in the Championship. Things should start to get better at Villa Park from now on, provided they make the right appointment.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.