Groundhog day looms for Arsène Wenger as Arsenal battle for a place in the Champions League on final day
Arsenal’s trophy cabinet has been barren for years but, with his future unclear, the French manager will not change his ways
It was with his usual disarming frankness that Arsène Wenger responded to an inquiry as to whether he would be signing the 20-year-old Auxerre striker Yaya Sanogo, available on a free transfer from the Ligue 2 club. “We are advanced in talks with him but it's not done,” Wenger said. “I'm very confident it will be.”
No one would wish to draw any premature conclusions on the usefulness or otherwise of Sanogo but it should be pointed out that Auxerre have only offered the France Under-21 international a one-year deal. Arsenal have offered him a four-year deal although there is also a question over his fitness, following a serious leg fracture earlier in his career. It might be an inspired signing, it might not, but it certainly sounds like a classic Wenger deal.
Change is rife in the Premier League, with new managers due at Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea this summer but at Arsenal life stays the same. Prompted into a tribute to the soon-to-be retired Sir Alex Ferguson, Wenger praised his old rival's willingness to keep forging ahead with change in spite of his age.
"I won't tell you about Pizzagate! He [Ferguson] never looked conservative and I admired that with him. He never looked like he refused to move forward or be open to new things. This progressive attitude, you have to respect that. We can all be a little bit restricted to our experience and what worked before. And he never did that."
It was a generous and warm assessment of a once fierce opponent but it was impossible not to think that those qualities Wenger identified in Ferguson are the very same qualities that he himself has been accused of lacking in the recent difficult years. The Sanogo signing might yet be a masterstroke, but acquiring raw, cheap young French players with bags of potential does not exactly feel like a bold new move in the Wenger playbook.
On Sunday, Wenger's team walk the tightrope once again of Champions League qualification. They are one point ahead of Tottenham Hotspur, who led them by seven points after Spurs' derby win on 3 March, and if they beat Newcastle United at St James' Park then they will reach Europe's elite competition for the 16th consecutive season at the expense of their local rivals. However much their status has slipped in recent years, that will be cause for celebration.
Wenger pointed out that if the league season had started on 1 February, then Arsenal would have been top, with 10 wins, two draws and that solitary defeat to Spurs. But the league season did not start at the beginning of February and these kind of statistical crutches have propped up many a disappointing season for the club. What it does tell them, at least, is that they should expect to beat Newcastle tomorrow.
It will be tense, nonetheless, with Wenger saying that he is still not sure whether Mikel Arteta will be fit for the game. Olivier Giroud is back after suspension but not a certainty to go back into the team. That said, the advantage is with Arsenal, already in fourth place and with the possibility of third if Chelsea lose to Everton at home. Wenger is right that his players have responded to the challenge that emerged in the spring, and now he needs one more push to get over the line.
There is still the tantalising prospect of a play-off with Chelsea for third place if both clubs finish with identical records, an outcome that Wenger seemed quite enthusiastic about – if only because it would give him a chance of finishing third. It is easy to forget that they finished third last season, a point above Spurs and 19 behind the champions City. Currently 18 behind this season's champions United, that gap only has potential to change in only a small way.
Whatever happens will have a huge effect on the summer when there will be more funds to buy players, which will in turn affect the decision over the renewal of Wenger's contract. It is by no means certain that he will stay but the club are very hopeful of being able to do the deal next summer. Wenger said yesterday that good players will join regardless, but, already restricted in the market, Arsenal do not need another disadvantage.
"What is at stake [in Champions League qualification] is the desire to play at the top and to play top-level European football," Wenger said. "There is a difference between the Champions League and the Europa League. Why? Because Champions League players play with the best teams in Europe. That's what we want to do. The financial consequences are of course big, but that's not the most important thing.
"It's easier to attract the players –top, top, top players – if you play in the Champions League, that's part of the rule of the market. But, anyway, we have a good team and we will attract one or two players that we want, no matter what happens. For us we want to be with the best. [It is important] for me but first for my club, I want my club to be at the top and therefore of course it is a very important game."
How would he rate the season with a top-four finish? "I will leave that to other people. At the moment we have 70 points. We made 70 last year and we can beat that."
Even if Arsenal secure Champions League qualification, the message yesterday was that the budget will not extend to Wayne Rooney, should United make him available – but then we hardly needed telling that. Curiously, Wenger hinted that he would have liked to have signed David Beckham when he left Manchester United 10 years ago but the money was impossible. Given United and Arsenal's parity then, it would have been the transfer to end all transfers.
"After, there was a question mark when he went to Milan [on loan in 2009 and then again in 2010], but we didn't really need him," Wenger said, and that impressive list of players Arsenal have thought about signing, but never did, grew a little longer. It is to their credit that, on the last day of the season, a win will guarantee them Champions League football, but no one should be under any illusions that a top-four place will transform their fortunes.
* Race for the Champions League
Arsenal will guarantee fourth place if they beat Newcastle at St James’. If they lose or draw, Spurs must beat Sunderland at home to secure fourth. If Chelsea draw 0-0 and Arsenal win 2-1, they will be level overall and would meet in a play-off to decide third.
Managing to survive: The long servants
Sir Alex Ferguson, 27 seasons Manchester United 1986-2013
Arsène Wenger, 17 seasons Arsenal 1996-
David Moyes, 11 seasons Everton 2002-2013
Tony Pulis, 7 Stoke 2006-
Paul Tisdale, 7 Exeter 2006-
Greg Abbott, 5 Carlisle 2008-
Chris Wilder, 5 Oxford 2008-
Nigel Clough, 4 Derby County 2009-
Roberto Martinez, 4 Wigan Athletic 2009-
Gus Poyet, 4 Brighton 2009-
Mark Yates, 4 Cheltenham 2009-
Russell Slade, 3 Leyton Orient 2010-
Karl Robinson, 3 MK Dons 2010-
Graham Turner, 3 Shrewsbury 2010-
Tony Mowbray, 3 Middlesbrough 2010-
Alan Pardew, 3 Newcastle United 2010-
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