London (AFP) – Arsene Wenger brokered a fragile truce with Arsenal’s dissenting fans by winning the FA Cup, but has little margin for error ahead of Friday’s Premier League opener against Leicester City.
Last season was by far the most difficult of Wenger’s 21-year tenure as manager, with Arsenal’s on-pitch travails exposing him to furious protests from sections of the club’s support.
Having ended months of speculation by signing a new two-year contract, he is looking forwards and says that if the team put on a united front, the fans will fall into line behind them.
“A lot (of the trouble) was created by my own situation. Maybe I made a mistake,” Wenger said after Arsenal beat Chelsea on penalties in last weekend’s Community Shield.
“Overall I believe that it’s down to us. The trend has always to come from the team.”
Undermining Wenger’s quest for harmony is the uncertainty surrounding several first-team players.
Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere are among the players whose contracts expire at the end of the season.
Sanchez in particular has been the subject of intense speculation about his future amid reported interest from the big-spending duo of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.
The Chile forward missed pre-season after being granted extra time off following the Confederations Cup and has been ruled out of Friday’s game due to an abdominal strain.
That Wenger is not going into the new campaign with the fans still at his throat owes much to Arsenal’s strong finish to last season.
After Wenger belatedly adopted a 3-4-2-1 formation — a tactical trend sparked by champions Chelsea — Arsenal won seven of their last eight league games and stunned Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup final.
They defeated Chelsea again when the teams renewed acquaintances at Wembley in last Sunday’s Community Shield, winning a penalty shootout 4-1 after a 1-1 draw.
– Iheanacho ready for action –
As well as the silverware, Arsenal’s supporters have also had a major signing to celebrate after Wenger broke the club’s transfer record to sign prolific French striker Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon.
The 26-year-old set Arsenal back an initial fee of £46.5 million ($60.3 million, 51.5 million euros) and is expected to lead the line, flanked by Sanchez and Ozil.
Ozil is a doubt against Leicester, however, along with Aaron Ramsey, Per Mertesacker and Shkodran Mustafi, while Laurent Koscielny is suspended. Gabriel and Santi Cazorla are definitely out.
For the first time since 1997, Arsenal are going into a season without Champions League football and Wenger has pledged to rest players in the Europa League.
He has said he intends “to focus completely on the Premier League”, but if such an approach fails to yield a title challenge, he can expect the protests to ramp up quickly.
After going into last season as defending champions, only for a close shave with relegation to cost manager Claudio Ranieri his job, Leicester are targeting stability under Craig Shakespeare.
They have spent over £50 million, strengthening each squad department with moves for goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic, centre-back Harry Maguire, midfielder Vicente Iborra and striker Kelechi Iheanacho.
Spaniard Iborra has been ruled out of the trip to the Emirates Stadium with a groin strain and joins centre-back Robert Huth and midfielder Danny Drinkwater on the sidelines.
But 20-year-old Nigeria starlet Iheanacho, signed from Manchester City last week, has been passed fit after sustaining a knock in a friendly against Borussia Moenchengladbach.
“You’ve got the season ahead to look forward to and everyone’s raring to go,” said captain Wes Morgan.
“We’ve got our first game this Friday coming and we can’t wait to get started.”