Arsene Wenger is preparing to celebrate 20 years in charge of Arsenal in October in the knowledge that next season could be his last at the club.
The Gunners’ manager is out of contract next summer and appears unlikely to sign the two-year extension proposed by the club’s board while there is so much hostility towards him from supporters.
Banners calling for Wenger to step aside became a familiar sight at Arsenal matches in recent months after their title challenge once again fell apart. Top of the Premier League table after 23 matches, they have ended up scrambling over the line at the end of the season just to secure their annual top-four finish.
Sources at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground say Wenger has recognised significant changes need to be made over the summer to a squad that has been questioned for its lack of character.
Arsenal have operated a policy in recent years of targeting stellar signings such as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, but fans were frustrated last year when the club neglected to sign a single outfield player, bringing in only goalkeeper Petr Cech for £10 million.
The upcoming transfer window could be Wenger’s final chance to complete a squad that has improved in recent years but has still left supporters waiting in hope more than expectation for a first Premier League title since the famous Invincibles side in 2004.
Arsenal have £159m in cash reserves sitting in the bank – more than any club in the world – as they reap the financial rewards of charging the most expensive ticket prices in the country at the Emirates Stadium.
Wenger is understood to have £80m to spend this summer, plus anything raised from player sales, with plenty of departures expected.
What they need
Wenger has repeatedly talked up the strength of his squad, but the Gunners are targeting new arrivals in four positions this summer. They want to bring in a potentially first-choice striker, a top class centre-back, a central midfielder and a left-back as back-up for Nacho Monreal.
Arsenal’s chief executive Ivan Gazidis and chief negotiator Dick Law will be tasked with agreeing deals for the players targeted by Wenger this summer.
The priority is to finally sign the first-choice striker Arsenal fans have been screaming out for, especially having seen Olivier Giroud fail to score in any of the last 15 Premier League appearances prior to the 2-2 draw against Manchester City while Theo Walcott has netted just five times all season.
In recent years, the club have tried to sign the likes of Luis Suarez and Karim Benzema, yet Giroud has been the leading the line since 2012. The lack of cutting edge has been reflected as Mesut Ozil still remains two assists short of the Premier League record of 20 set by Thierry Henry, despite the fact the German playmaker is still creating excellent opportunities.
Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be Wenger’s dream signing and the noises from north London in January were that the club believed they had a good chance of signing him in the summer.
The volume of those noises has dropped dramatically in the intervening period with the rapid Gabon international, who has scored 25 times in 30 Bundesliga matches this season, expected to join Real Madrid when he eventually leaves Dortmund.
Having tried to sign a “sure thing” in Benzema last summer, there is now a feeling at Arsenal that they will probably have to take a gamble this summer on a player with the potential to improve into a leading striker.
Juventus forward Alvaro Morata is a long-term target and could fit the bill. Talks have been held over a deal for the Spaniard but any move is complicated by the fact that Real Madrid are expected to activate a £23.7m buy-back clause in the player’s contract. The Champions League finalists will then look to sell Morata for around £30m and, as it stands, Arsenal look the most likely side to sign him.
Gonzalo Higuain has a stunning return of 33 goals from 34 appearances in Serie A this season, but sources at Arsenal say Wenger has reservations about whether the Argentine has the mobility to reproduce that form in England. The Gunners have also been put off in the past by Higuain’s salary demands while the fact he turns 29 this year means his value in the transfer market is likely to depreciate.
Arsenal have been scouting far and wide to find their next star forward and have watched Ligue 1 stars Alexandre Lacazette and Michy Batshuayi consistently. Another interesting link to have emerged lately is AZ Alkmaar forward Vincent Janssen, who is only 21 and has attracted attention with 27 goals in 34 Eredivisie matches this season.
While the net is being cast far and wide for strikers, the Gunners have narrowed down their targets for other positions already.
Wenger signed Mohamed Elneny in January with the long-term in mind in the knowledge that central midfielders Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky would all leave the club this summer at the end of their current contracts.
Arsenal are well stocked with Elneny, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey, but Wenger wants to sign an all-action midfielder who can dominate games.
The north Londoners remain hopeful of completing a deal for £30m Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Granit Xhaka, despite suggestions in Germany that the Swiss midfielder may wait to see if Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich move for him in the summer.
Wenger, who speaks fluent German, has been personally involved having scouted Xhaka in person and spoken to the 23-year-old on more than one occasion in an attempt to persuade him to move to the Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal also have also made it clear that they would be at the front of the queue for N’Golo Kante amid reports of a £20m release clause in his contract with new Premier League champions Leicester City.
Another Leicester player, left-back Ben Chilwell, has also been lined up since January to move to the Gunners as back-up for Nacho Monreal in a £5m deal, with Kieran Gibbs expected to leave the club. Liverpool are expected to provide competition for the highly rated 19-year-old’s signature.
Finally, Wenger would like to sign an exceptional central defender if one becomes available and the Gunners have scouted Roma defender Kostas Manolas throughout the season. The 24-year-old would cost more than £30m and Chelsea are favourites to sign him as it stands, particularly given the west Londoners’ good relationship with the Italian club.
Bolton centre-back Rob Holding has also been linked with the club in recent days as a player with potential for the future who could join as another back-up centre-back.
As Squawka reported last month, Wenger is planning a summer overhaul of his squad having accepted that significant changes must be made to the squad as Arsenal plan a title challenge next season.
Up to nine players could leave north London this summer, with midfield trio Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky already told that their contracts will not be renewed when they expire at the end of the campaign.
Perhaps most worrying for Arsenal supporters will be the recent talk around the club that both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are waiting to see evidence of ambition in the transfer market before committing to new contracts. The duo – Arsenal’s two most expensive ever signings – both have two years left on their remaining deals and have been in talks over fresh terms since as far back as September without agreeing extensions. Sanchez, in particular, has been mentioned as a possible target for Bayern Munich, but Arsenal are adamant that neither player will be sold this summer.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott are the two highest profile names that Arsenal are willing to sell. Oxlade-Chamberlain is the more likely to leave as he seeks more first-team football given he has two years remaining on his £55,000-a-week contract compared to the three years left on Walcott’s £140,000 weekly salary.
Chelsea, Manchester City, West Ham and Southampton are all interested in Oxlade-Chamberlain and the 22-year-old could be followed out of the club by fellow England international Kieran Gibbs, who has failed to kick on and, now 26, appears unlikely to force his way into Wenger’s first-choice starting line-up.
Per Mertesacker could also be a shock departure if Wenger is able to replace the German by signing a new first-choice partner – such as Manolas – for Laurent Koscielny in central defence.
Right-back Mathieu Debuchy, who moved to Bordeaux on loan in January, is expected to leave permanently while Wenger is also preparing to let one of his back-up goalkeepers leave.
Both David Ospina and Wojciech Szczesny have told Wenger that they do not want to be second choice behind Petr Cech next season.