For all the talk of a rousing, fist-bumping send-off for Arsène Wenger that would go down as one of the club’s greatest European nights, Arsenal’s lacklustre defeat at the Wanda Metropolitano on Thursday instead provided a stark reminder of where the club finds itself in the final act of Wenger’s 22-year reign. A fairytale finish to the most underwhelming of seasons – a first European honour under the Frenchman’s stewardship, won against all the odds – proved to be just that, a fairytale, and the 2-1 aggregate defeat to Diego Simeone’s ruthless Atletico Madrid side highlighted many of the reasons that have led to the curtains being drawn on the Wenger era and ensured that his reign would end on something of a damp squib.
Hopes of European glory now dashed, and the potential for a place in next season’s Champions League now gone, the powers that be at Arsenal now face the most testing of summers to ensure that the post-Wenger era starts with something of a rebirth and not a continuation of the decline the club has experienced over the past decade or more. Time spent looking at how the club’s traditional rivals are faring only makes the task seem even greater – Liverpool go into a Champions League final against the other side from Madrid with a real chance of winning Europe’s grandest prize, Manchester City have run away with the Premier League title and will likely record a record points total, and the gap to the likes of Spurs and Manchester United has only widened over the course of the campaign. Even catching Chelsea in 5th place has seemed a impossible task; the greater threat for some time has been Burnley over Arsenal’s shoulder.
So, what now? Comparisons have frequently been made to how Manchester United transitioned from Sir Alex Ferguson’s legendary reign to the disastrous David Moyes era, but when Wenger’s greatest adversary stepped aside he was doing so as a Premier League champion at the height of his powers. The next manager of Arsenal Football Club will instead inherit a side who have not picked up a single away point in 2018, a club who have an increasingly troublesome financial situation with a rising wage budget and no Champions League money for two seasons running, plus a squad riddled with players who are either under-utilised, under-motivated or simply not good enough. For years the Arsenal job has been described as one of the most attractive in Europe, and probably was until the last season or two, but now it seems like an increasingly thankless challenge. Talk of Wenger’s potential successor has gone on for years, and although previously mooted names such as Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel have already been snapped up by other major clubs, it’s hard to believe any of the biggest names would even be that interested in the role were they available now. It’s certainly unlikely to expect Diego Simeone would have thought he he might fancy working with what he saw face up against his Atletico side over these two legs.
That is not to say that all hope is lost, however, or that the Arsenal board can’t appoint a manager who can step in and steady the decline that Wenger has heartbreakingly been unable to reverse. When you consider the club’s attacking options, for a start, things don’t look too bad – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have proved to be shrewd acquisitions after a chaotic January transfer window, Alexandre Lacazette has shown more in recent weeks to justify the club’s £50m+ outlay on him last summer, and Mesut Özil – in spite of his performance in Madrid – remains one of the most effective playmakers when utilised properly. It’s hard to imagine any manager looking at the options Arsenal currently have in attack and not believing they could make an effective attacking force out of those players, albeit with an acceptance that the squad is lacking quality out in the wide positions. Still, there’s more than enough talent in the attack to justify minor outlays being required over the summer.
Looking back into the midfield and beyond, though, does make for more worrisome reading. Aaron Ramsey, the club’s most effective midfield option in terms of attacking contributions, has a contact with only 12 months left to run and could well seek options elsewhere if other suitors come knocking. Jack Wilshere might already be gone before the new manager meets the players, whilst the likes of Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny, albeit effective players on their day, do not seem of the requisite quality to start regularly in the midfield of a club aiming to get back into the Champions League. It seems cruel to even consider Santi Cazorla as a viable option at this point. Considering the club’s defensive options makes for even grimmer reading, with the achilles injury Laurent Koscielny picked up on Thursday raising a serious question mark over the future of his Arsenal career and the erratic and error-prone Shkodran Mustafi remains an enigma whose initial promise seems like a distant memory. In between the sticks, the debate over whether it should be Petr Čech or David Ospina as the club’s number one feels all the more depressing with each passing gaffe or shaky performance the duo endure.
Glaring holes in the squad, concerns over contractual situations and dwindling resources raises the fear that Arsenal’s decline might not yet have hit its lowest depth. This allows for very little room for error this summer, and that starts with the man who ends up stepping into Wenger’s shoes in the Emirates dugout next season. The idea of appointing someone like Brendan Rodgers, for all the good work he has done at Liverpool and Celtic, appears too divisive a call given the toxic split in the club’s fanbase, whilst the possibility of pinning hopes on an inexperienced former player such as Patrick Vieira or Mikel Arteta would be a vanity appointment that seems unlikely to work. The club instead needs to focus on bringing in a manager with the experience to not be swallowed by the shadow Wenger will inevitably leave over his successor, and with the tactical guile to work with what he has available to him. Funds will not be released to bring in multiple top class players in the upcoming window, so the priority should instead be finding someone who can organise a team defensively and extract as much quality from the squad as possible. Carlo Ancelotti for this reason appears to be a serious contender.
For that reason, if the right appointment is made then fans can look forward with cautious optimism. There are numerous concerns about the quality of the playing squad, but there is also plenty of room for the existing group of players to improve – younger players like Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Alex Iwobi and Rob Holding could all make a serious impact at Arsenal with the right coaching team in place to encourage their development, whilst the likes of Granit Xhaka, Sead Kolasinac and Shkodran Mustafi have all proved at previous clubs they can perform at a much higher level than they have shown for long periods of their Arsenal career. It’s hard to argue with the notion that a new goalkeeper must be found from elsewhere, but one would hope that Sven Mistlintat and his scouting team would be able to unearth a prospect capable of offering more than the club’s current options have shown this season.
Lots of things need to go right at Arsenal in the coming months, from the managerial appointment to the club’s moves in the transfer market in a summer disrupted by a World Cup finals. However, with the final hope of salvaging this relentlessly depressing season now firmly ended, there are few distractions to worry about when it comes to focusing on the challenging times that lie ahead. This is new ground for this club, this board, this squad and millions of Arsenal fans, and to make a serious prediction for how it’s all going to go seems foolhardy at this stage. Arsène Wenger’s departure is not going to fix a number of problems Arsenal currently face, but there is hope it can be the catalyst for change much like his initial appointment back in 1996 proved to be. Rightly or wrongly, Wenger has proved to be an effective lightning rod when it comes to criticism from fans and pundits alike on the current state of the club, but now no excuses can be made for not rectifying the mistakes of recent years. It’s time to look forward, not only with a mixture of excitement, intrigue and trepidation, but with a firm acknowledgement of what needs to be done to get Arsenal back on the road to where it needs to be.