Arsenal are preparing for one of the most difficult transitional periods in their long and proud history, with Arsène Wenger’s 22-year reign at the club coming to an end following years of unrest in the stands over his seemingly untouchable tenure.
The veteran manager has transformed the north London side from top to bottom, and his influence at the Emirates will surely be felt for years to come.
But with the second half of Wenger’s time in charge of Arsenal failing to match the success of the first decade, the Frenchman’s most recent years at the club have largely been dominated by just two names – Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil.
Signing two of the biggest players in European football from Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively signalled an end to Arsenal’s stubborn and outdated approach in the transfer market, an ethos which fans believed stemmed from Wenger.
Although the departure of the disruptive Alexis in January was welcomed by supporters, Arsenal fans have largely demanded that Özil be handed a new contract before the Germany international could walk away for free this summer.
The 29-year-old has indeed put pen to paper on a new contract at the Emirates, extending his current deal until 2021. But a concession of mysterious back injuries towards the end of the campaign has seen Özil receive similar criticism to that which was hurled in the direction of Alexis last year.
The World Cup-winning midfielder embodies everything that is right with Arsenal. Outstanding technique, the ability to do things which no one else can and, on his day, Özil is completely unstoppable.
Unfortunately, however, Özil also embodies everything that is wrong with the club – at least during Wenger’s twilight years.
A player who is criticised for not working hard enough, not caring, or being guilty of overplaying in areas where fans want to see some cutting-edge, Özil’s faults have often mirrored the denunciation of Arsenal as a whole in recent seasons.
And with the former Real Madrid playmaker inadvertently carrying the tag of a typical Wenger signing, the Gunners will find moving into a new era while Özil remains at the club a difficult task, especially as he remains their biggest name and highest paid player, not to mention that the German’s popular song actually pays homage to their former manager.
Moving Özil on during the current transfer window seems an almost impossible task given that the midfielder recently penned a new deal at the Emirates, but opening the exit door for the 29-year-old will offer the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere or even Ainsley Maitland-Niles the chance to step up into a more attacking role.
But even if new manager Unai Emery would prefer to bring a direct replacement into the club, the Spaniard could sign a player who is a better fit for the system he wants to be played in north London.
The influence of backroom staff Raul Sanllehi (Head of Football Relations) and Sven Mislintat (Head of Recruitment) is already being felt at the club and their appointment offers an insight into how Arsenal’s hierarchy want the club to be run.
Their introduction behind the scenes also has fans largely excited about what the future has in store, even despite the major change which is just around the corner.
But if Özil remains at the club there will be a constant reminder of days gone by, and Emery’s already tough task of not being remembered as “Wenger’s successor” could become all but impossible.