Remarkably, even after capitulation against Bayern Munich on Tuesday, the sense at Arsenal appears to be that manager Arsene Wenger could sign an extension to his contract, which expires in the summer. Messages from the board have been mixed, and the situation remains fluid, but for now Wenger appears to retain the faith of CEO Ivan Gazidis, who effectively runs the club for majority shareholder Stan Kroenke.
Frustration has been mounting. This is the seventh season in a row in which Arsenal has been eliminated in the last 16 of the Champions League and probably the most humbling of those exits. Wenger loyalists point out that while Laurent Koscielny was on the pitch–he suffered a hamstring injury shortly after halftime in the first leg and was controversially sent off shortly after halftime in the second–Arsenal won 2-1 and see that as evidence that his tactical plans were working before circumstance intervened. But in a sense that is the point: there is a culture at Arsenal and a structural frailty that lends itself to the sort of collapse it suffered in both legs.
Wenger’s whole aim in recent years has been stability. Arsenal is the side that has reached the last 16 of the Champions League 17 years running. It’s always in the top four in England. It is solid and reliable. It has a proud new stadium, the debt under control. It has £226.5 million in the bank and is habitually profitable. And yet, Arsenal finds itself in a position of profound instability.
It’s not just that Wenger’s contract that expires in the summer. Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all enter the final year of their contracts in June as well, and all have reached the point at which they need either to extend their stay or be sold. Sanchez is obviously disaffected, something that culminated in him being left on the bench at Liverpool last Saturday following an incident in training. There has been little progress on talks with Ozil, although it’s not immediately clear if any other European club who could afford him would want him. As for Oxlade-Chamberlain, it emerged this week that he is frustrated with the way he is being used as a utility player and may seek to leave.
Sanchez and Ozil on one hand, and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the other, represent the two halves to Arsenal’s problem. Sanchez and Ozil were brought in for large fees. They were seen as Arsenal moving into a new financial world, shaking off the caution of the early years at the Emirates, able to compete with the best. But they have come in isolation: Sanchez has grown frustrated and Ozil remains frustrating. There are arguments for both to leave, but their status as emblems of Arsenal’s supposed new age should not be overlooked.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, meanwhile, is one of a number of bright young things–along with Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, Francis Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey–who have looked highly promising, but for one reason or another not really developed to the maximum. Neither end of the recruitment scale, proven stars nor exciting prospects, is working. In that context, Wenger’s caution becomes an increasing frustration to fans.
It’s still possible, of course, that Wenger will be proved right economically. If a crash comes–and recent viewing figures for both domestic and European football give some reason for concern–Arsenal will be far better placed than any of its rivals, with cash reserves and a stable, sensible budget. But when you’re losing European fixtures 10-2, fans are not minded to wait for financial tide to turn.
The atmosphere in the stadium on Tuesday was revealing. Although here was a pre-game march against Wenger, it comprised only around 200 fans. Inside, there were chants against Kroenke, but broad-based support for Wenger. That may not be such a positive sign as it appears, though. There was a sense that that battle is already lost, that what fans were expressing was sympathy for a great manager who has gone on too long. The question, then, is how they will react if Wenger does stay on.
There is a trepidation about the future. Arsenal fans have seen what happened to Manchester United after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, the three, possibly four, seasons of relative struggle. It’s understandable they should fear something similar when their own leader departs. But the argument increasingly must be that Arsenal has nothing to lose. United won the league in Ferguson’s last season; it’s been 13 years since Arsenal last did.
If Wenger were to go, though, who might come in? Eddie Howe is probably the prime English candidate, but he is inexperienced at the very highest level and struggled on the one previous occasion he left Bournemouth. Diego Simeone may leave Atletico Madrid in the summer, but his pragmatic approach is perhaps too different to the self-identity Arsenal has established under Wenger.
Thomas Tuchel would make sense ideologically, but why would he leave Dortmund? Luis Enrique will be out of work, but he is presumably going to take some time off to refresh himself. Perhaps the best Arsenal can hope for is that Barcelona doesn’t appoint Jorge Sampaoli, so it can get the excitable Sevilla coach, who plays the right sort of football, has a consistent recent record of success and for whom it would be a clear step up.
But the truth is whatever happens this summer, whether Wenger stays or whether he goes, there have to be major changes at the Emirates.