Arsene Wenger, typically, had tried to sustain an air of mystery around the subject of his future at Arsenal, but on Monday night Ivan Gazidis let slip the secret that, in truth, wasn’t much of a secret at all: Wenger would be signing an extension to his contract which will take him into a third decade in charge of the club.
"We've always supported Arsene and Arsene has always been committed to this football club," said Gazidis in a rather unguarded moment as he helped announce a club record £150m kit deal with Puma. "Arsene will be extending with us and at the right time we will make that announcement.
"He's always been completely committed to this football club, it's the football club of his life so we're convinced at the right time we'll quietly make an announcement and he's the right person to see us forward. I'm convinced of that."
This is certainly a critical juncture of Arsenal’s recent history. Already feeling the benefits of a renewed and improved deal with Emirates, yesterday’s announcement of a huge sponsorship deal with Puma to supplant Nike after 20 years – reportedly worth £30m a season to put the club in line with Real Madrid and Barcelona – means that, from the coming summer, Arsenal will be blessed with substantial and unprecedented resources.
And with the club top of the league heading into the midweek Premier League fixtures, and at times playing with a verve reminiscent of some of their greatest XIs under Wenger, there is little doubt the Frenchman who has led the club since 1996 finds himself in a position of some renewed strength.
Whereas five months ago, following a defeat to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, many supporters would have openly questioned whether Wenger was the right man to be entrusted with such huge transfer resources, now they have been mollified. With every incisive assist from record signing Mesut Ozil, every unexpected goal from Aaron Ramsey (prior to his disruptive injury) and every decisive intervention from Per Mertesacker, dissent has eroded.
Players previously castigated as flops have been revitalised by Wenger’s perseverance in them, while the Ozil signing demonstrated that Arsene’s age of austerity has ended. His stubborn nature when it comes to his players and a new flexibility over transfer fees have combined to good effect. At the moment he has a touch of alchemy; few would argue Wenger is not the right man to take the club forward.
But still, there is a nagging suspicion that the seeds for future disappointment may already have been sown.
With four days remaining in the transfer window Arsenal do not appear close to signing a new striker. If they do then this article will be proved silly and redundant, but it’s all quiet on the Holloway Road at the moment with the only concrete speculation linking the club with Julian Draxler – the wonderfully talented young Schalke playmaker who, it is said, in time could emulate Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie by being moulded into a forward of some repute.
Draxler is a big talent, yet it is painfully clear, and has been for some time, that Arsenal are in need of immediate reinforcements in attack. Given Yaya Sanogo’s struggles to get fit, the club will have only Nicklas Bendtner as a genuine centre-forward should Olivier Giroud succumb to injury. Theo Walcott could have filled in as an auxiliary attacker if he wasn’t sidelined for six months, while Lukas Podolski also has the capability to move in from the wing, if required. But there is a glaring hole in the Arsenal squad.
In February and March alone, Arsenal must play Bayern Munich and Liverpool twice each, plus Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Manchester City, as well as a possible FA Cup quarter-final. Even if Giroud stays fit, fatigue, both mental and physical, is likely to affect a player who has been Arsenal’s sole legitimate centre-forward for too long.
Wenger tried to alleviate the burden on the Frenchman – if not outright displace him from the team – when pursuing both Gonzalo Higuain and Luis Suarez in the summer. Doing so demonstrated bundles of ambition, yet ultimately it had zero impact on his squad. A top-line striker was not purchased, and it appears another window is set to pass without Giroud having fresh competition.
Indeed, since 2008 the only strikers Wenger has signed are Giroud, Sanogo, Marouane Chamakh and, at a push, Park Chu-young. While it doesn’t quite rival Sir Alex Ferguson’s notorious blind spot when it came to signing central midfielders in the final years of his Manchester United reign, it is still a curious anomaly which is not entirely explained away by the fact that for much of that time Arsenal had a fit Robin van Persie in top form.
In truth, Arsenal have been in desperate need for an additional striker for the past three transfer windows – this winter making four. Though admirable attempts were made to sign Suarez and Higuain, back-up targets should have been identified and subsequently purchased. Arsenal may not be feeling the pain now, sitting top of the league as they do, but you fear a lack of depth in their attacking ranks could yet have a deleterious impact on their season.
And really, the solution is pretty simple - or should be at least: buy or loan a striker who is superior to Bendtner. For a club lauded for its comprehensive and diligent global network of scouts it shouldn’t prove too taxing. Even if the target in question is a short-term fix – something largely anathema to Wenger, the grand planner – it will have a notable benefit if Arsenal are to have any chance of maintaining their title challenge in the face of Manchester City’s relentless goal-getting.
City, it should be noted, have three strikers who have scored in excess of 15 goals this season. Arsenal have none. Though Arsenal’s goals have been spread democratically around the midfield, the team will surely be compromised if Giroud does sustain an injury or he fails to maintain his form. The simple solution is to get a body in – it has been for 18 months now – but none have arrived.
Wenger has had blind spots before – his decision to trust in Denilson and not dip into the transfer market after the departures of Mathieu Flamini, Gilberto Silva and Lassana Diarra in the same summer; a prolonged refusal to find an adequate replacement for Jens Lehmann in goal – and a failure to recruit a new striker could be another entirely avoidable problem which holds the club back, just at a time when forward momentum is in their possession.
The fact the club are top of the Premier League table doesn’t absolve Wenger of criticism over the balance of his squad; if anything, it makes the need for adequate depth even more pressing.
Tom Adams - @tomEurosport