Arsene Wenger's time at Arsenal is likely to come to a sad and bitter end
At the Emirates on Thursday night, the stadium will once again fill with the ranks of the disaffected and the despondent.
The disaffected and the despondent will stay away as well, with some expecting as many as ten thousand empty seats. Arsenal have key games remaining in their season, but they are not the key games many had wanted.
Arsenal were two points clear at the top of the table in the middle of January. They go into Thursday’s game thirteen points behind Leicester City. It has been a collapse of…well, of Arsenal proportions.
It is the hope that is supposed to kill you, but it turns out that crushing inevitability makes people miserable too.
Arsenal have embraced one definition of insanity as they do the same thing time after time and expect different results, and with every failure and every dropped point, the anger grows.
After every home game, supporters gather to voice their dismay to the fan tv channel which has charted their misery. They compete with each other to sound more pissed off than the man beside them while others gather round and listen to their words with the solemn expressions of those expecting news from a mining disaster.
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) December 7, 2014
These bulletins are overwrought and hysterical, but Arsene Wenger’s manner does little to discourage them. In football terms, it is safe to say he is not a democrat. He believes in his way, understandably perhaps because for so long his way was the way of a genius, but it doesn’t seem to work any more.
So those who feel voiceless shout louder and louder, determined that they will be heard, flocking to a populist like Piers Morgan who appears to understand the problems of the ordinary Arsenal fan just as Donald Trump understands the problems of the ordinary American voter.
Many Arsenal fans crave change, but the dangers of bringing a new manager into an environment which has been shaped by one man have been demonstrated by Manchester United in the years since Alex Ferguson retired.
In some ways, it could be worse for the man who follows Wenger. When Ferguson left, there were many who were prepared to be patient with his successor, for a while at least. But there are many Arsenal fans who believe that all it will take for their club to be successful is for Wenger to go.
If Arsène Wenger truly loves Arsenal as much he claims then he should fall on his stubborn, obstinate, arrogant £8m-a-year sword. #afc
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) April 17, 2016
A new manager will arrive with ramped up expectations and discover that he is at a club where everything has been controlled by one figure who has now departed.
Ideally Arsenal would learn the lessons from United and create a new structure to support the next manager before he takes over, but that would require Wenger to play a part in shaping his own exit strategy and it is unlikely he has any interest in that strategy.
On Wednesday morning, Wenger said he would respect his contract which takes him until 2017, a comment which caused another spike of unrest and it will continue, especially if Arsenal miss out on the top four.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt in his mind that he’s going to carry on,” says Andrew Mangan, owner of Arseblog.com. “Ideally I think it’s time for a new manager but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Assuming Wenger stays, Mangan sees an ideal scenario where Arsenal win their remaining games, qualifying for the Champions League, and then spend and strengthen in the summer.
But that would also require a change of approach from Wenger who believes there is another way, his way.
“In the end you do not buy to give hope,” he said earlier in the season. “You want to buy because the players who come in can help your squad to be stronger. Buying and selling is one way to strengthen your team but that’s not the only way.”
Wenger is right in theory, but his practice has failed. He seems determined to demonstrate the flaws in the thinking of his critics by being unrelenting, but something will have to change.
On Wednesday, Wenger was asked if he would sometimes like to offer more of an explanation for decisions to the disaffected supporters which may include 2,500 season ticket holders who have informed the club they don’t want to attend the West Brom game. He said he wouldn’t and offered an explanation for his non-explanation. “It’s endless.”
The demands were infinite and the demands for answers were too, particularly from the endless trains of the faithless who can sometimes appear to be in the majority among the modern football fans.
“I do so many things that make me suffer,” Wenger told L’Equipe this season, and it may be that he can no longer separate the suffering from the job, that, in fact, he thinks the suffering is the entire point of the job.
Tony Adams once said that Wenger hates confrontation, but there is a need to address the weaknesses in the squad, not only through transfers but by challenging the players at the club too.
Wenger’s suffering has protected them. In part, he sees that as his job, but again it has gone on too long.
It is hard to see a way in which it now ends gently for Wenger. Leicester have made things worse. “If Arsenal were behind Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United, I don’t think it would be as acute. The fact they’re behind Leicester and Tottenham has tipped people over the edge,” Mangan says.
This was Arsenal’s great opportunity, a chance for Wenger to claim another title which would have allowed him to celebrate his 20th anniversary at the club in the autumn in peace or retire as a title-winner.
Retirement was always an unlikely option, Mangan believes. Wenger lives for football and may want to extend his contract rather than work serenely towards a managed departure.
It may be time for others at Arsenal to act, but that could be to expect too much from a club which has been shaped by Wenger for so long.
Serenity may not be an option either. “He must realise that this summer is a way of addressing certain issues,” Mangan says. If Wenger demonstrates ambition in the transfer market then the disgruntled supporters may be placated.
“The abuse and the anger tends to obscure all the great things he’s done,” Mangan says and with every new disappointment, those achievements are further obscured.
But the chances of him changing are slim. He has his way of working in the transfer market which brings frustration too and he is likely to prove resistant to any attempts to change it.
“I don’t know whether he can change,” says Mangan. “He can’t be unaware of what’s going on either. There’s two ways that could go. One, he could say, ‘Right, maybe I do need to do things a little bit differently, take some risks’’. The other way is that, being the stubborn man that he is, he becomes more entrenched and stays the same way. In which case, if things don’t go well next season, it’s going to get crazy.”
Perhaps Arsenal can claim fourth place in thrilling fashion and that will provide a distraction, but more is needed in the summer.
Maybe Wenger can transform himself and find a way of avoiding the looming craziness, but that transformation could be beyond him. Instead it seems likely that the anger will grow, the disaffected will become louder and the end when it comes will be bitter and sad.