LONDON • Arsene Wenger brokered a fragile truce with Arsenal's dissenting fans by winning the FA Cup last season, but he has little margin for error ahead of today's Premier League opener against Leicester City.
Last season was by far the most difficult of the Frenchman's 21-year tenure as manager of the English Premier League club, with Arsenal's on-pitch travails exposing him to furious protests from sections of the club's supporters.
Having ended months of speculation by signing a new two-year contract, he is looking forward and says that if the team put on a united front, the fans will fall into line behind them.
He admitted on Wednesday that protests from Arsenal fans and the uncertainty over his contract situation distracted his players, leading to them missing out on a top-four finish for the first time since 1996.
Speaking at the Football Writers' Association fundraising event for the London Fire Relief Fund, Wenger said: "At some stage, the players came to see me and said, 'What's going on boss?'
"I created (the situation leading to the supporters' protests), with me not deciding, (leading to) a lack of clarity and there's nothing worse than that in the dressing room. I had to tell them, 'Look guys, I'm with you', but we have to win games."
Undermining his quest for harmony, however, 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.
Cost of Arsenal's new striker Alexandre Lacazette - S$81.5 million - from Lyon
Sanchez in particular has been the subject of intense speculation about his future amid reported interest from 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 today's game due to an abdominal strain.
Cost of Leicester's new striker Kelechi Iheanacho, from Manchester City
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 he 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 shoot-out 4-1 after a 1-1 draw.
Prolific French striker Alexandre Lacazette, signed from Lyon for £46 million (S$81.5 million), is expected to lead the line today, but Ozil is a doubt, along with Aaron Ramsey, Per Mertesacker and Shkodran Mustafi, while Laurent Koscielny is suspended. Gabriel and Santi Cazorla are definitely out.
Leicester are targeting stability under Craig Shakespeare after going into last season as defending champions, only for a close shave with relegation to cost then manager Claudio Ranieri his job.
They have spent more than £50 million, strengthening each department with moves for goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic, centre-back Harry Maguire, midfielder Vicente Iborra and striker Kelechi Iheanacho, the most expensive arrival at £25 million.
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 Nigerian Iheanacho, signed from Manchester City last week, has been passed fit after suffering a knock in a friendly against German Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach.
"I expect us as a team to turn up and compete," said Shakespeare. "It's the opening game in the Premier League and fitness levels are good. The application from the players has been good as well."
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