A new formation, a first away Premier League victory since 14 January and their top four hopes still just about alive, there was reason for Arsene Wenger to smile after Monday’s 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough.
"The first time in 20 years, yes, and that shows you that even at my age you can change," Wenger said of his decision to switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation, something he had not resorted to since 1997. "But sometimes when a team lacks confidence, just to have something new to believe helps them to focus and, overall, the fact that we conceded three at West Brom, three at Crystal Palace, I felt that it was needed.”
It was Gary Neville who warned Arsenal fans after the match not to get ahead of themselves, given it was a victory over 19th-placed Middlesbrough who will almost certainly be playing in the Championship next season. Yet he may as well have been talking directly to Wenger, as his formation change did not feel like one to inject Arsenal with life, but a last-ditch effort to prove to the club’s hierarchy that he is capable of change.
The two-year contract extension that has been offered to Wenger, despite the club currently on course to finish outside the top four for the first time under his reign, is conditional on him proving he is capable of changing with the times to remain competitive and ensure the north London side are challenging for the right type of silverware.
At 67 years old, it will take some doing for Wenger to reinvent himself. The Frenchman is known worldwide for developing an eye-catching, beautiful style of football that while not always the most successful, has attracted a large number of admirers who don’t support Arsenal, let alone the ones that do. That started with Wenger deploying a 4-4-2 formation, before switching to the 4-2-3-1 that he has stuck with for the bulk of the last decade.
That change didn’t bring the success that Wenger – or anyone – expected, with the club going nine years without a trophy before clinching back-to-back FA Cup triumphs in 2014 and 2015. What was important then, and still is now, is that Wenger took the side forwards. As long as the team was showing that it was developing towards the right end of the Premier League table, there was no need for Wenger to prove he could change, nor that he should suddenly abandon his approach in favour of something that is working elsewhere.
Arsenal, under Wenger, were showing signs of improvement since he signed his last contract in 2014. Premier League finishes went from fourth, to third, to last year’s second place, and while losing out on the title to Leicester was not exactly a positive for Wenger, it was at least something to build on this season.
That hasn’t happened, and not even an FA Cup success – with Arsenal playing Manchester City in this weekend’s semi-finals – will hide the fact that their Premier League and European campaigns have been a disaster. Arsenal have lost seven matches in 2017 when they were well placed to challenge Chelsea at the turn of the year, and the humiliating 10-2 defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League will live long in the memory of Wenger’s worst losses when he reflects on his career.
What Arsenal need is a real change, not a formation tinker, and like Chelsea have proven, that comes with the manager. Roman Abramovich has his critics for his cut-throat approach, but it is one that reaps rewards given they have won 13 major trophies since Wenger last lifted the Premier League title, despite having 11 permanent managers in that time. If Arsenal want new ideas, then they should look beyond Wenger, as his simple switch to three at the back is not going to be enough to win the title given he will still ask his side to play the same brand of football.
There is also the issue of the players Wenger seeks out in the transfer market. The additions of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez have been justified for the sizeable outlay, but the £80m net spend last summer is yet to bear fruit. Lucas Perez is unlikely to remain with the club beyond the summer after a frustrating season spent largely among the substitutes, while Granit Xhaka is yet to prove why Wenger signed off £35m for his signature. Even Shkodran Mustafi, who enjoyed a very strong start to life at the Emirates Stadium, has seen questions of his ability thrown his way after the Germany international struggled immensely whenever Lauren Koscielny was absent.
If Wenger is to continue, he must also completely change his approach in the transfer market, and that doesn’t mean breaking the bank with every signing. Chelsea proved last year that in N’Golo Kante and Marcos Alonso, £32m and £24m acquisitions respectively, they can find players who can make a significant difference over the course of a season, and all for less than Arsenal shelled out on Xhaka and Mustafi.
Bringing in fresh faces would then meet the demand for a change in formation, given the new players can match new ideas and new styles that Arsenal are clearly in need of. Right now, it’s just damage limitation with hopes of a top four place still alive, barely, and Wenger trying to prove that he is capable of taking Arsenal back where they have been for two decades. Failure to do so will result in the Arsenal board finally making Wenger’s decision for him.