With his future finally resolved, Arsene Wenger has one last chance to restore his battered reputation and end the civil war that threatened to tear Arsenal apart.
It is 13 years since Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ won the last of his three Premier League titles, a golden period when the bond between the Arsenal manager and his supporters seemed unbreakable.
Wenger’s subsequent travails have turned that relationship increasingly toxic, so it was inevitable that Wednesday’s announcement that he has signed a new two-year contract would be greeted with disdain by many fans.
Winning the FA Cup for a record seventh time with a dominant display against Premier League champions Chelsea on Saturday was an unexpectedly uplifting coda to the most stressful period of Wenger’s 21-year reign.
And as the Frenchman cavorted around Wembley during the lap of honour, the more optimistic Arsenal followers viewed the confetti-strewn celebrations as a renewal of vows between the coach and his army of detractors.
But for the previous 10 months, the 67-year-old had been subjected to vitriolic abuse from fans calling for his resignation.
The rift between pro and anti Wenger factions clearly affected the team, reaching farcical proportions when two planes — one trailing a message of support and the other demanding he quit — were flown over the Hawthorns during a dismal defeat against West Bromwich Albion.
Frustrated were running so high that even FA Cup glory couldn’t win over some disgruntled supporters and, just as significantly, it was reported members of Arsenal’s board had their own misgivings about Wenger.
Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis admitted it had been an “unsettling time” and while majority shareholder Stan Kroenke remained in Wenger’s corner, others pushed for the manager to cede some of his powers to a sporting director and make changes to his long-serving backroom staff.
Wenger appears to have won that power struggle for now, but a poor start to next season would surely fan the flames of discontent.
After signing his new deal Wenger tried to heal the wounds.
“This is a strong group of players and with some additions we can be even more successful,” he said.
“We’re committed to mounting a sustained league challenge.”
Kroenke doubled down on that statement of intent, saying: “Our ambition is to win the Premier League and other major trophies in Europe.”
But to achieve those lofty targets, Wenger must resolve the issues that undermined him this season.
– Home runs –
For starters, he has to persuade Alexis Sanchez to sign a new contract amid rumours the Chile forward will attract offers from Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
Sanchez and team-mate Mesut Ozil are both holding out for weekly wages of around £300,000-per-week and have just one year left on their current deals.
Wenger needs to hit some home runs in the transfer market as well after years of mostly average recruitment.
Kroenke is ready to give Wenger £100 million ($128 million, 114 million euros) to spend, with Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez, Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe and AC Milan’s Carlos Bacca all linked to the Gunners.
But with no Champions League action, Wenger may find it hard to improve a team with some fatal flaws.
It wasn’t by chance that Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 20 years and finished 18 points behind Chelsea.
Wenger’s transfer mishaps have left Arsenal lacking presence in midfield and bereft of a instinctive finisher, while their myriad defensive woes were exposed time and again.
Wenger used to be at the cutting edge of management with his astute scouting, dietary plans and data analysis.
However, his methods have been copied and improved by rivals with bigger budgets and he would benefit from a fresh perspective on his coaching staff.
A self-confessed football obsessive, Wenger’s hunger can’t be questioned, but whether he can successfully change his ways this late in his career remains to be seen.
Arsenal’s club motto is ‘Victoria Concordia Crescit’ — a latin phrase meaning victory grows through harmony.
Making that slogan a reality again will define the final years of the Wenger era.