The Frenchman is battling to win over some sections of the Gunners’ support, having seen his side drop from first to fifth in alarming fashion in recent weeks
By Harry Sherlock
Arsenal may be in the FA Cup final but, as they prepare to face West Ham in a vital London derby on Tuesday, there is a distinct, unwelcome air of uncertainty pervading the corridors of the Emirates Stadium.
Arsene Wenger has been offered a new contract by the club yet, despite the deal lying on the table and terms having been agreed since October last year, it remains unsigned.
And, despite the irrefutable, legacy-sealing success of his early tenure in particular, many fans would rather that the Frenchman passed on the chance to stay, instead handing over the reins to somebody – anybody – else after another dismally frustrating season.
A skin-of-the-teeth penalty shootout victory over Wigan saw the Gunners into the cup final on Saturday and they now stand just 90 minutes away from ending that cursed nine-year trophy drought which has spawned spoof Twitter accounts and even its own website.
All that stands between them and glory is Steve Bruce’s humble Hull City, a team who sit 18 points behind the Gunners in the Premier League table and who lost 2-0 at the Emirates in December.
It seems straightforward but it may not be enough.
With the Gunners’ league form such that missing out on Champions League football appears a real danger, those who fear that Wenger has been left behind by the modern era, that his frugality in the transfer market continues to cost the league’s most cash-rich club dear, that his Midas touch has long since been lost, are an increasingly vocal unit within the club.
Lukas Podolski claims that missing out on the Champions League would be a “disaster” for the Gunners, even if they were to triumph at Wembley – and few fans disagree. Yet the selfies taken by the players following the penalty victory over Wigan suggests that they believe they are on the verge of something special.
Quite simply, they are not. Roy Keane offered a withering assessment of the pictures, brutally ripping into the players for celebrating their Wembley win in the manner they did, saying on ITV: “These Arsenal players need a reality check.
“Last season they celebrated finishing fourth and now they celebrate beating a Championship side on penalties – we are talking about Arsenal FC here.”
Yet this is the stage Arsenal have reached. A single trophy, for these players under Wenger, is a success. At Manchester United during Keane’s days, if it wasn’t the Premier League or the Champions League, it was a consolation. They were expected to win everything.
Arsenal are merely expected to finish fourth. On Wenger’s watch they have gone from serial winners to perennial also-rans.
Wenger, when he took over, was seen as a revolutionary. Dubbed ‘Le Professeur’, the bespectacled Frenchman ushered in a era of unprecedented success, winning three Premier League titles – one with the fabled ‘Invincibles’ – and four FA Cups. The north Londoners also went within a hair’s breadth of lifting Europe’s premier prize, though they were defeated by Barcelona in the Champions League final.
He also laid down the blueprint for the Arsenal of today, with young players preferred to big-money acquisitions and attacking, possession-based football favoured over the defensive style fostered beforehand. When he did dip his toe in the market, in the early years, he hit paydirt often – with the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires all becoming club legends.
Now he is regarded as frustratingly uncertain. He finally loosened the purse-strings last summer, with the €50 million signing of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid appearing to signal the start of a cash-laden re-emergence.
The season started brightly, with the German sparkling, but he, along with the team, soon burned out. Support was needed but only an injured Kim Kallstrom arrived in January.
Wenger has often been criticised for spending the club’s money as though it is his own. He is frugal to the point of being penny-pinching and has never been rushed into a deal. It has cost the Gunners dear.
His failure to sign a striker in January has seen the burden fall upon the shoulders of Olivier Giroud and, to a lesser extent, Yaya Sanogo – a free transfer in a summer where Gonzalo Higuain, Luis Suarez and Wayne Rooney were regarded as realistic targets. Neither have delivered since the transfer window shut, with Arsenal falling from the summit to fifth in alarmingly quick time.
They were thumped by fourth-placed Everton 3-0 at Goodison Park – a result even more damaging within the context of similar beatings at the hands of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City – and are in genuine danger of missing out on the Champions League. They simply must beat West Ham.
Gunners legend Pires believes that the uncertainty surrounding Wenger’s contract has transmitted to the players, telling Goal in March: “There is a little bit of confusion in the situation because normally he would have already signed the contract but maybe he can wait until the end of the season or the FA Cup [to announce it].
“I love Arsene Wenger but the situation for the players is maybe not good.”
It is one theory. Yet Wenger must surely sense the discontent currently engulfing the stands.
They are stuck in an identity crisis. Maybe the critics are right; Wenger stepping aside would allow Arsenal to find themselves once again. Yet that contract remains on the table. A win over Hull and a top-four finish would likely see it signed, with a trophy added to that threadbare cabinet in the Emirates Stadium.
It is far from certain, though, whether that version of events would benefit the club.