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May 30, 2014

Wenger's new era?

Arsene Wenger ended Arsenal's nine-year wait for a trophy as they lifted the FA Cup in 2014.
Arsene Wenger ended Arsenal's nine-year wait for a trophy as they lifted the FA Cup in 2014.

Arsene Wenger has ensured his reign as Arsenal manager will stretch across more than two decades and much like Arsenal's FA Cup victory, it's been left until the last minute.

Wenger's previous contract was just weeks away from expiring before he extended it until 2017. Although the Arsenal boss is famously firm when it comes to honouring his contracts, he's never before let a deal get so close to ending before agreeing an extension. In the latter part of the 2013-14 season, it felt as though he was engaged in a protracted game of poker with the Arsenal fans.

- Official: Wenger signs new deal
- Mangan: Arsenal's cup of liberation

Opinion about the Arsenal manager's future fluctuated dramatically throughout the course of the season. During the opening day defeat to Aston Villa, Wenger faced an unprecedented barrage of abuse. His ears were ringing with expletive-laden commands to spend some of the club's significant cash reserves. He promptly obliged, recruiting Mesut Ozil for a club record fee and leading the club on a 10-match unbeaten run that led them to the top of the Premier League.

With Arsenal on the crest of a wave, Wenger's stock was suddenly on the rise. He seemed reinvigorated and his team reborn. Arsenal, the serial "nearly men", appeared to be making the transition to winners. That pre-Christmas period seemed the optimum point for him to sign a new deal, yet Wenger chose to wait it out. For a long time, that decision looked like a mistake.

In the second half of the season, Arsenal's campaign threatened to collapse in, their title challenge crumbling under the weight of a succession of tricky away fixtures. Most worryingly of all, the failings were familiar. Between August and January, Wenger had shown a promising willingness to be pragmatic and sacrifice the attacking potential of his team for defensive security. As spring approached, his customary cavalier attitude returned and Arsenal paid for it dearly.

At that stage, his tenure seemed untenable. Arsenal's early promise was written off as an anomalous blip, as endemic flaws were ruthlessly exposed. Hidings from Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea opened old wounds and this time it seemed they might prove mortal.

However, he still had one chance of a reprieve -- the FA Cup. As long as Arsenal stayed in the competition, all was not lost: there was still the glittering opportunity to end the long wait for silverware. Arsenal could yet claim a cup brimming with promise and an elixir that could grant Wenger's Arsenal reign another three years of life.

They trod a fine line. In the semifinal against Wigan, they were nine minutes away from defeat before Per Mertesacker headed a crucial equaliser. In the final itself, they found themselves 2-0 down within the opening eight minutes. However, the wonderful thing about lifting a trophy is that it renders analysis almost redundant. All that really matters is the achievement and the ecstasy.

When Wenger held that cup aloft, many demons were exorcised. In that one moment, a cloud of gloom that had hung over the club and the manager had dissipated. The pressure has been relieved and the clear skies above the Emirates have allowed the fans to view things with a little more clarity.

At the start of last season, Arsenal fans wanted major signings and a trophy -- Wenger has delivered Mesut Ozil and the FA Cup. It's significant progress and arguably warrants the reward of a new contract.

There are, of course, those who disagree. Some fans feel that the flaws in Wenger's strategic thinking will prevent Arsenal from pushing on as much they should. However, even the most vehemently opposed to Wenger will concede that this is not a great summer in which to be making a managerial appointment. The fact that Manchester United have had to turn to 62-year-old Louis van Gaal suggests there is not an abundance of sprightly up-and-comers available on the market.

The length of the deal might come as some surprise. A three-year contract is a significant commitment for both parties. However, it suggests Wenger feels prepared to embark on a new project. Most of the squad are tied down to long-term agreements and a core of British players are approaching their peak years.

There is work to be done, starting in the transfer market this summer. Arsenal need to spend ambitiously to avoid a repeat of last year's Emirates revolt. However, if they do good business, there's every chance they could mount a more sustained title challenge next season. Retaining the manager and entering a new era are not mutually exclusive.

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