The clearest indication that Arsene Wenger will sign a new contract at Arsenal has come over the last seven days. If that isn’t his intention, then how to explain his side’s sudden evolution? In reaction to the galling 3-0 loss at Crystal Palace, Arsenal adopted a three-man defence for the win over Middlesbrough and, even though its success was limited, carried the shape into Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final victory over Manchester City.
Suddenly, there are signs of life. Not just in the team, but from Wenger himself. The common accusation that football has outgrown him isn’t aimed broadly at his lack of Premier League success over the last decade, but rather focuses on his habit for repeating the same type of failure. Arsenal have lost games in the same way, have made the same mistakes in the transfer-market and their resistance typically falters at the same point each season.
If there had been more variety in that underperformance, Wenger’s impending extension would likely be an easier sell. If, say, he had spent recent seasons fumbling in the dark for answers, searching unsuccessfully for a solution to his team’s perennial issues, the levels of frustrations would likely be the same, but perhaps the acrimony would not.
Arsenal are not on the cusp of a revival. Well, they might be, but narrow victories over an awful Middlesbrough team and a highly vulnerable Manchester City aren’t true barometers of any direction. It has, however, been interesting to note the subtle changes within those performances. As a team they’re often accused of possessing weak emotional muscles and, clearly, not enough has happened over the past week to properly challenge that (albeit cliched) criticism. Nevertheless, they survived ‘Boro’s post-equaliser surge at the Riverside and, irrespective of City’s limitations, still rescued a losing situation at Wembley. A minor positive, for sure, but a rare one too: until yesterday, this team hadn’t won from a losing position against a top-four side since 2012.
Arsenal have often been enslaved by momentum in the past and so, given the atmosphere surrounding their players and manager, it’s surprising that this season’s trajectory has begun to point upwards again. Think of the plane banners, the weakening relationship with supporters and the context created by that contract; if ever a team wanted an excuse to phone the rest of a season in, February, March and April provided it.
With this latest victory, though, has come different detail: alongside their formation change, Arsenal demonstrated a range of incongruous habits. As has been noted by almost everyone who attended or watched the game, their defensive effort was bolstered by some smart tactical fouling (20 fouls compared to their Premier League average of just over 10), a far more cohesive midfield dynamic and, in Rob Holding, a bold, progressive selection. These aren’t really established Arsenal traits. Neither do they fit with the old line about Wenger’s refusal to adapt. Whereas another manager’s decision to alter his team’s shape and show faith in a developing player would pass without much notice, with him it feels significant. Part realisation, part concession: the recognition that under their silly surface layer, the club’s fanbase might have a point. Quietly, the ruthless benching of Theo Walcott has perhaps attested to that, too. No player has provided a more vivid emblem for Wenger’s capacity for forgiveness than Walcott, yet he has been the one outwardly targeted following that night at Crystal Palace. Captain that evening and an unused substitute ever since: a sacrifice to the plane-charterers.
Has everything become definitive better? No, but it’s different. Change is anathema to Wenger, so for him to knock his team down and rebuild it at this point is – at the very least – interesting.
Maybe too much water has passed under the bridge. Maybe these little changes are just the desperate act of a tired coach scrambling for novelties in the twilight of his career. But perhaps they represent the point at which the noise become so deafening that Wenger had no choice but to respond, either by feigning realisation or actually reaching it. Ultimately, they amount to the same thing. Maybe even Wenger’s patience for his flaws has now been exhausted and these tentative acts of contrition are an attempt to assuage doubts over what his new contract would represent.
Whatever the case, Arsenal are interesting again. After months – years – of stale debate, there is at least something new to discuss.