Arsène Wenger rides out stormy season but old flaws remain and only serious spending will pacify manager's critics
Arsène Wenger will be glad to see the back of a season that has proved the most testing since he was handed the Arsenal reins 17 years ago. As he embraced Mikel Arteta at the final whistle at St James' Park there was a huge sense of relief but also vindication after defying his critics and finishing in the top four for the 16th successive year.
Contract speculation, rumours of unrest within the coaching staff, the worst start since 1994 and a contentious rant at the media have certainly made this campaign one to forget. Yet after securing a spot in the qualifying rounds of Europe's elite club competition, and denying Tottenham the opportunity to benefit from the Champions League's ample riches, Wenger remains resolute and unwavering in the position he first occupied in 1996.
Even when Laurent Koscielny opened the scoring shortly after half-time, Wenger was reluctant to celebrate. After the 90 minutes, as Arsenal's players danced on the pitch as if they had won the title, Wenger waved to the travelling supporters and took his leave down the tunnel in dignified fashion.
It was a moment to savour after a year of controversy. The FA Cup defeat against Blackburn in February, and a story printed in the aftermath of that loss that he was to be given a new contract, sparked a furious outburst from Wenger against the assembled press ahead of the club's Champions League last 16 tie against Bayern Munich in Germany. A 3-1 defeat followed. That may have been the nadir but there have also been other depressing days, notably the losses to Bradford City in the League Cup and Swansea City in the league.
In a year when the two north London rivals have tracked each other's progress in the Premier League week by week, perhaps it was to be expected that, with 45 minutes of the season remaining, their fates were still undecided.
When Gareth Bale found the net at White Hart Lane for Tottenham against Sunderland in the dying minutes, the nerves among Arsenal's fans high up in the Leazes End here were clear to see, an edginess compounded when Theo Walcott rounded Steve Harper and trickled his finish agonisingly into a post.
They sang Wenger's name after the final whistle but support for the manager has waned this season. Even here there were clear weaknesses in the side and the same faults that have emerged repeatedly in recent years.
An absence of bite in midfield was woefully exposed while Newcastle United's Cheik Tioté was snapping in with challenges at full throttle throughout the match, and another assured presence at centre-half is required alongside Koscielny – on at least two occasions Per Mertesacker was caught trundling and being outpaced with ridiculous ease.
It is Wenger's perceived myopic approach that has provoked new levels of frustration and ire among his critics this season but, although the trophy drought continues for another year, qualification for the Champions League preliminaries is a fine achievement, especially when Arsenal's neighbours are so desperate to oust them in the top four.
However, the good work achieved during his long tenure at the club has often been overlooked because performances have been inconsistent. Wenger has played a key role in the transformation of the Premier League during his time in England, from a tactical approach and when looking at the influx of foreign players to the top flight.
It is often forgotten that Newcastle's manager, Alan Pardew, once criticised Arsenal for their approach, saying Premier League football was "losing its soul" because of the lack of English players there. In hindsight those words are somewhat ironic given the fact that Newcastle fielded two Englishmen here – and one of those was the third-choice goalkeeper making his final appearance for the club.
The two managers shook hands warmly after the final whistle despite their disagreements over the years and both will be glad to consign their respective seasons to the history books.
For Wenger, though, there can be renewed optimism. Both Manchester clubs and Chelsea are preparing for summers of upheaval with new managerial regimes to be brought in, whereas Arsenal can rely on longevity and begin to build without any disruption.
Whether Wenger spends large sums during the transfer window remains to be seen, but he has been promised a significant kitty and will be able to enjoy a summer without one of his key players being coveted by rival clubs. The departures of Cesc Fábregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie have severely damaged Arsenal in recent years and have raised serious questions about the club's long-term ambitions and financial muscle.
Critics will be pacified if Arsenal show intent in the market. Either way, Wenger has ridden out the biggest storm of his long reign.