LONDON — Even as dissent mounted against Arsene Wenger and the Premier League title drought reached 13 years, Arsenal’s leadership concluded there’s no better manager for the London club.
Looking back on a 21-year association with Wenger, Arsenal was unwilling to leap into the dark and part with its most successful manager. After a season when Wenger blamed uncertainty about his future for the team’s slump, the 67-year-old Frenchman finally signed a new two-year contract on Wednesday.
"When you look at the world of football, and you think about the great candidates that there are … you don’t find any better candidates than Arsene Wenger," chief executive Ivan Gazidis said.
It was a "very mature conversation" that led to Wenger staying in the dugout, according to Gazidis. The status quo proved too appealing for both sides, with Wenger opting against a new challenge despite recently talking up the offers he has rejected.
"For me it’s always easy on a loving affair because I identify myself so much with the club," Wenger said. "When you can be where you love to be, that’s easy."
Only part of Arsenal’s announcement about the new contract gave the impression there was any significant post-mortem on the first full season in Wenger’s reign when the team has finished outside of the Premier League’s top four. As a result, Arsenal will be missing from the Champions League for the first time in two decades next season.
Arsenal said that Wenger and Gazidis "have conducted a full review of our on and off the pitch activities to identify areas for improvement."
Both Gazidis and Wenger talked about mounting a "sustained league challenge." That hasn’t come for some years and Arsenal has also only reached the Champions League final once, losing to Barcelona in 2006. Particularly galling for Arsenal fans this season was to finish below north London rival Tottenham, the runner-up, for the first time in 22 years.
"Our ambition is to win the Premier League and other major trophies in Europe," owner Stan Kroenke said. "It’s what the fans, players, staff, manager and board expect and we won’t rest until that is achieved. Arsene is the best person to help us make that happen."
Also important, though, are players like forward Alexis Sanchez and playmaker Mesut Ozil, who could leave for free in a year unless they are locked down on new contracts.
Both players helped Arsenal to collect the FA Cup for the third time in four seasons on Saturday by beating Premier League champion Chelsea. Encouragingly for Wenger, the Wembley Stadium success capped a six-game winning streak to end the season with a flourish.
"We can move up to the next level, I’m convinced of that, by having faith in the way we want to play football and by supporting the players we have already," said Wenger, whose seventh FA Cup title made him the competition’s most successful manager. "Of course we’ll try to strengthen our squad to be strong next season, but we want to be faithful to the way we want to play the game."
Whether Kroenke is the right person to lay the foundations for success is disputed by Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who owns 30 per cent of Arsenal and recently failed in a $1.3 billion bid for the club.
"(Wenger) has a great opportunity to deliver the success that the fans deserve and the legacy that his long contribution merits," Usmanov said Wdnesday. "However without the right support there remains a real risk that his legacy will be tarnished. If the support is not forthcoming, we stand ready to step in and do everything we can to deliver success on and off the field."
Wenger joined Arsenal in 1996, making him by far the longest-serving current manager in English soccer.
His three Premier League titles count for little now among a section of the fan base that vociferously demanded change in the dugout. They argue that Wenger has been holding the club back and that it was time for a fresh approach and a new direction. Wenger said he has been hurt by the open criticism from fans that came during many matches this season and claimed it was partly to blame for Arsenal missing out on a top-four spot.
"Let’s be together to support our players, to support the club and all give our absolute best to be at the level that we want to be," Wenger said. "We can move up to the next level."
Such is his influence at Arsenal, both in terms of the club and the team, that Wenger’s departure would have necessitated a complete overhaul of its structures. It would have been a similar position to where Manchester United found itself in 2013 when Alex Ferguson decided to retire after 26 years in charge, with United struggling to recapture its standing at domestic and European level.
"At some point, of course, we will have to transition to the era beyond Arsene," Gazidis said, "and that is not a sentimental connection that we have, that is a connection that is driven by what is best for the football club."