As Arsenal slumped to a disappointing 3-1 away defeat at the hands of West Bromwich Albion last Saturday, two damning banners were flown over The Hawthorns which say a lot about not only the week but perhaps the last couple of seasons that manager Arsene Wenger has faced. Although one banner being dragged by one of two planes during last weekend’s midday kickoff may have read ‘Wenger Out’ and mirroring the growing discontent amongst more and more Arsenal fans as the club slips further behind the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and even this weekend Manchester United in terms of progression both on and off the pitch, the other came out in support of the Frenchman. In this case it was ‘In Wenger We Trust’ that may have answered his growing number of critics through an equal show of support to combat that calling for his head but in reality did little to cover up the alarming number of Arsenal fans that appear to have grown tired with Wenger’s ways and an Arsenal directed by him.
After announcing shortly after Saturday’s defeat that he had only now fully made up his mind and that he was personally aware of what his plans were for the next season, almost a week around and both Arsenal fans and the preying media are waiting anxiously for the next big twist or turn during Wenger’s 21 year reign at the club. Largely his time at time at the club will always be looked back on with great fondness by Arsenal fans who will point to league title success and Wenger’s revolution of a playing style in the late nineties together with his unforgettable ‘Invincibles’ side of the early noughties as stark reminders of just how good of a manager the Frenchman has been both for the club and for the league in general.
Yet after another infamous European Groundhog Day in one of the largest and most one-sided Last 16 scorelines in living memory after a 10-2 hammering on aggregate by Arsenal’s familiar foes Bayern Munich, it looked then as if the writing was on the wall for Wenger with Arsenal fans and most probably the club’s hierarchy too, tired of the same old year in, year out with little to no progression past the Round of 16 whatsoever in the last few seasons especially. Coupled with the fact that after well over 100 days, former enemies and closest contenders for the Premier League title Manchester United finally leapfrogged out of sixth position in the league and dropped Arsenal into it, Wenger’s reputation of consistently helping the club finish in the top four and securing Champions League football one way or another is now severely under threat.
As much of a saviour to many Arsenal fans that Wenger may appear for his exploits and past success, at the age of 67 the Frenchman has clearly experienced working under pressure before now but with his best years as manager now an incredibly long time ago, you do wonder whether this is one battle that a coach often considered one of the most stubborn men in world football, will be able to overcome. The onslaught of abuse in the form of direct response from Arsenal fans via social media and notable video blogs is most certainly one thing but together with the pressure from the English media and perhaps in time his own players and club hierarchy become a challenge that is that bit too difficult beat? More importantly, even in spite of his undoubted passion for the club and good intentions of always putting the club’s best interests first, does Wenger really wish to overcome or even deserve the level of criticism he is receiving week in, week out, season after season?
Clearly it is difficult to call given that Wenger is a manager that continues to defy all odds and survive each time there’s a crisis and player mutiny at the club. On occasions where many clubs would have perhaps parted ways with a manager should another candidate come available capable of taking the club to the next level, especially in the current, modern climate, Wenger just keeps on going and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Frenchman even in spite of recent discontent amongst Arsenal supporters, to want to see the job through personally and in many ways ride the storm to much brighter days that he has been used to as the club’s manager.
To do so however, there are a number of issues that seem as significant as they ever have been during his time as manager at the club which Wenger would have to at least neutralise should he and his side stand any chance of moving forward both productively and together. Firstly for all of the coverage that Arsenal gets away from the pitch, it’s those who turn out each week for the club that need scrutinising with many of the club’s ‘star players’ perhaps not shining quite as bright as we all know they are able to on the pitch. Aside from the likes of Petr Cech, Laurent Koscielny and Shokdran Mustafi who pick themselves given that they are clearly the best options available in their position, large sections of the rest of the squad need to be looked at. Not only in terms of decision making behind their purchases in the first place but more so concerning their effort levels and enthusiasm to play for the club above all, astutely managing the squad is one thing for Wenger but the need for his players to want to play for both Arsenal and under his leadership is another and very vital thing should Wenger wish to stand any long term future at the club.
For a club that regularly prides itself as flag bearers for giving young players a chance in the first team often in cup competitions and even leagues games, players such as Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade Chaimberlain and even outgoing loanee Jack Wilshere are now far from the exciting youth players they once were and it’s time they made themselves count rather than relying on their previous potential as a means to warranting a regular starting place. Olivier Giroud and Natcho Monreal meanwhile may have provided some much needed experience over the past few seasons in what has often been a very young and inexperienced Arsenal squad but with the likes of Spurs and Liverpool now asserting themselves among the top five clubs in the country, inevitably the finger will point to the players such as these, both in key areas of the pitch and whether they are considered of good enough quality to be looked upon as potential league title winners. Similarly as often is the case Wenger’s signings must also be analysed carefully as to whether the likes of Lucas Perez, Mohammed Elneny or Granit Xhaka, albeit clearly good enough to cut it in the Premier League, possess the same quality as their top flight counterparts fighting it out for the title to become champions of both England or even Europe.
Then however comes Wenger’s greatest headache this season in the shape of the future of perhaps two of Arsenal’s most talented players in recent seasons – Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. Although many expected two of Arsenal’s most crucial players to sign on the dotted line shortly after their contract shortened to less than two years, such an agreement has to date not yet been confirmed. With less than eighteen months remaining on both of their individual contracts at the club and with the days ticking down without any, at least public agreement in place, Arsenal continue to run the risk of losing their biggest stars for a snip of the price they could command in a summer window with both committed to much longer contracts.
The reason behind both Ozil and Sanchez’ reluctance to sign a new contract with the club remains a mystery but you would think that given the few assurances regarding Wenger’s future both are unwilling to therefore commit themselves to the future of a club that lacks a sense of direction and with Wenger’s future in doubt, any real leadership both at present and looking further ahead. And whilst Arsene Wenger has a reputation of being stubborn and most strikingly never bowing to players demands, losing Sanchez and Ozil could be more damaging to the club than it may seem at first sight. Should Arsenal lose both players and consequently drop out of the top six, short term instability could well become long term disdain and they may struggle to attract such a calibre of player in the future. Where as Arsenal have had little difficulty in replacing Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Thierry Henry in the past, helped largely because of the manager and clubs reputation as well as regularly featuring in Europe, losing both star players would be the tip of the iceberg for the club and a risk you feel isn’t worth taking.
It will obviously take much, much more than Arsene Wenger and two star players departing and a club at long last missing out on Champions League football for Arsenal to not be considered any longer as one of the biggest sides in Europe. However given the fast paced nature of the modern game both on the pitch but most notably on the sidelines with managerial, sponsorship and boardroom changes happening everyday across the continent, the longer question marks remain over Wenger’s future the more that Arsenal risk falling off the pace in keeping with the elite European sides. As you would expect any decision will surely made jointly between the Arsenal hierarchy and Wenger himself but the longer they both take to come to an agreement or at least release a public statement to confirm the club’s plans for the next season, you can expect a similar uncertainty and instability to continue both on the pitch and through the anger and frustration of the club’s supporters.
Should Arsene decide to stay at the club for a further one or two years then fine, at least his decision will provide the necessary clarity and reassurance needed for Arsenal to progress. Clearly meanwhile Wenger will recognise his many problems at hand but it is for him and himself only to personally decide whether he still firmly believes that he is the right man to overcome the many challenges that now face him. Alternatively if now then proves the time for Wenger to wave goodbye to his Arsenal legacy, then at least with some grace Arsene Wenger should be allowed to enjoy the rest of his time at the club with a possible chance of silverware in the FA Cup. The club may rue missed opportunities to have brought in the likes of Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola previously but should Arsenal move sooner rather than later for a new manager then at least it would be done with good time and without once again being left behind.
Going forward however, there needs to be some kind of resolution no matter what happens for the good of the club’s fanbase, the players and for the Arsenal manager himself and the sooner what is slowly becoming an even greater mess is sorted, the better for all parties.