LONDON – A saga of almost elephantine pregnancy proportion mercifully ended on Wednesday when Arsene Wenger signed a new two-year contract with Arsenal. The would-he wouldn’t-he inquisition started over a year ago and the back pages have not let it go, even though there could be only two possible outcomes.
The question had been put to Wenger at virtually every press conference over the past 10 months and he has answered in the same way every time — by effectively saying it will be decided at the end of the season. Someone even suggested a sponsored silence on the subject (I would have contributed).
In the wake of “Wenger Out” banners on low-flying airplanes and drones plus “In Wenger We Rust” placards at matches the Frenchman agreed to stay on, as he was always going to even if he would not say so. Last weekend Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1 in the most exciting F.A. Cup final most can remember, the Gunners’ display full of style, speed, stamina and spirit.
Where had they been hiding it all season?
Three F.A. Cup triumphs in four seasons were not enough to placate the Wenger Out club, while missing out on the Champions League for the first time in 20 years by finishing fifth and below Tottenham was seen as unacceptable failure.
This correspondent believes Wenger should have told the board last August he would not sign a new deal, which would have given the club time to identify a successor. Younger coaches in the Premier League have overtaken the 67-year-old Wenger, who now faces probably the biggest challenge of his illustrious career which is to make Arsenal a realistic title contender next season for the first time in over a decade.
The F.A. Cup is six matches (including two non-league teams this time around) but it is too long since Arsenal has looked capable of staying the 38-game Premier League course. Stan Kroenke, the United States-based majority shareholder, effectively calls the tunes and the American is more a businessman than a soccer fan and the share price has continued to rise under the Frenchman. In Wenger he prospers.
Frustrated supporters may be unhappy, but further protests should be resisted because Wenger is staying and the only effect they would have is disruption. The planes and drones must be on hold until the subject of — heaven forbid — Wenger staying on after 2019 surfaces, as it will.
Money will be available this summer while the coaching and technical staff will probably be changed in an effort to move forward. Keeping leading scorer Alexis Sanchez, who has a year remaining on his contract, is crucial to Arsenal’s short-term future while bringing in players of true quality, unlike last summer when Valencia was paid £35 million for Germany defender Shkodran Mustafi, is essential though it is too long since that happened.
Those who believe Arsenal needs at least three or four recruits from the higher end of the market were not impressed when Wenger said: “We have to keep 90 percent of the squad together and bring in one or two more to strengthen the group — not too many, but top quality.”
Leicester midfielder Rihad Mahrez would be a good start, and to beat Europe’s big guns to Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe, the best young striker in world soccer, though under the leopard not changing its spots theory Arsenal fans are bracing themselves for same old, same old.
Bale may be on the move
Word is Real Madrid could be receptive to a bid for Gareth Bale, which may not be unconnected with the Wales international’s injury record. There are so many statistics available about players, but in many respects the number of matches they play is as crucial as anything.
Bale, 27, has missed around a half of Real’s matches since signing for the Spanish champion for a world record fee of £85 million four years ago. He has played 139 matches and missed 76.
On Saturday Real meets Juventus in the Champions League final, but Bale has not played since April 23 and as Spain does not have a reserve league, it would be a huge gamble to start a player who cannot be match fit. His replacement, Isco, has been outstanding in his absence, though Zinedine Zidane, aiming to become the first coach to retain a Champions League crown following last year’s success over Atletico Madrid, is giving no clues as to whether he is prepared to restore Bale for the showpiece at National Stadium in his home city, Cardiff.
“We are happy he is with us and he’s recovered and is prepared with all of us,” said Zidane ahead of what could be Bale’s last game for Real with Manchester United ready to break the bank for the forward.
Though Bale’s goals-per-game record for Real is impressive, he has sustained 17 separate injuries at Bernabeu Stadium and for a fee of around £85 million and £300,000 a week (after tax) a new club would hope for more on-field activity.
Good work if you can get it
It has been a good year financially for Sam Allardyce. He received a £2 million bonus from Sunderland 12 months ago for keeping the club in the Premier League. His 67 days as England manager saw him leave with a £1 million compensation package while he quit Crystal Palace last month after pocketing another £2 million bonus when the Eagles avoided relegation.
Allardyce, 62, who joined Palace last December, hinted that he was retiring to enjoy more time with his family “while I am still young enough.” Retirement is not something people usually decide upon overnight. It is planned a while in advance, even if the decision is not made public.
Perhaps Allardyce made a spur of the moment choice when he achieved his first target as Palace manager, which was to keep it in the Premier League. On the other hand, most people believed Palace was always good enough to retain its status, not least after the club had spent £40 million during the January transfer window.
Whenever the decision was made £3 million — including wages — for six months work was a nice top-up to the pension fund and will help Allardyce to buy an even bigger villa than the £3.5 million property he owns on Spain’s Costa Blanca.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.