Arsene Wenger is adamant that a British core remains integral to his Arsenal vision and intends to offer new contracts to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs this summer.
All three are out of contract next year and have often struggled for regular first-team football but, having deliberately built around a group of domestic players that also includes Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey, Wenger says Arsenal should persist with this nucleus.
A photo of Wilshere, Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain all signing new contracts in December 2012 became symbolic of the new era that Wenger hoped to create but there has been varying disappointment at the rate of their progress. Ramsey’s contract expires in 2019 and a renegotiation is also likely this year.
Asked if he wanted to preserve his British core, Wenger said: “Yes. We still have a group of young players but we have to keep them all. We have Ramsey, Chamberlain, Wilshere, Gibbs. All these players, we have to make decisions and manage to keep them together.”
Wenger was also adamant that he could be “ruthless” in managing his wage spend but such a strong statement of faith in players who have yet fully to deliver is likely to surprise many fans. There was a particularly strong endorsement of Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has become uncertain whether he wants to stay even after playing more regular this season in central midfield.
“I personally think it is vital that Chamberlain stays at Arsenal,” said Wenger. “We bought him when he was very young and we have built him up. I like his mentality and he has a good football brain. It would be a big damage for us to lose this kind of player.
“In an inflationary market we have to consider the situation as a whole. We have to dedicate the money for everybody. First of all, we need to keep the good players. After, if they have the culture of the club, it is a priority as well but first it is good players with good mentality. Mohamed Elneny behaves really top class, like he has played here 10 years so you have to consider that as well."
Having repeatedly said over recent months that there is no rush on the contracts of players like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, whose deals expire in 2018, Wenger also agreed that he could not let players get into the final year of their contracts. “No, but we will be done this year,” he said.
Ozil again reaffirmed yesterday that Wenger’s own future will be central this summer to his decision and believes that Arsenal must strengthen to challenge the very best. “I think the club know they need to strengthen," he said. “When you look at our squad, it's not as broad as Bayern [Munich]'s or Real Madrid's. In the Champions League, that's not enough, especially against big teams. It's important to know if he [Wenger] stays or if he goes. We need to think towards next season.
"He's very important. In my career I've always made decisions not just because of clubs but managers. We still have a super understanding today. I have his trust, he's a superb coach. He's been successful for many years, he's been here for 20 years and has always managed to get Arsenal to reach the Champions League. He deserves to be shown respect."
Arsenal play Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park tonight, with the fixture assuming huge importance for both teams following the weekend’s results. The gap for Arsenal to the top four is back up to seven points, while Wenger faces a dilemma over whether to bring Oxlade-Chamberlain or Ramsey back into his midfield following strong midweek performances from Granit Xhaka and Elneny.
Wenger acknowledged that Oxlade-Chamberlain must work on his defensive contribution to further develop in the centre. “He is offensive; you can see he is a guy who can get out of pressure,” said Wenger. “He has a dribbling skill and acceleration that can get you out of pressure. He can penetrate. Sometimes on the flank he is out of the game but in the middle he is more focused. He needs to be involved in the game.”
Of the doubts over his defensive abilities, Wenger said: “Yes, he does not have enough experience in that position. He is a player who likes to take the ball and go at people sometimes. I think that this will get out of his game. “He can lose balls but defensively he is strong in the challenge when he wants to switch on. He has that kind of robustness to deal with body to body which is very important in the Premier League.
“He is one of the guys who sometimes is too harsh with his own performance. You can see he is blaming himself on the pitch sometimes when he misses something. You can see sometimes the fact that he is still in what he has missed when he gets the ball again. He works on that and I think he has improved a lot.”