Embattled Wenger at the crossroads
It is hard to imagine a bleaker match-day scenario for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal than defeat to a fourth-tier opponent that has been pieced together on a shoestring. The League Cup quarter-final defeat at Bradford City on the stereotypical Tuesday night in the north of England represented humiliation or, in the words of one brilliant headline: “Brad Pits”.
And yet, the true measure of Gooner despair was it was not actually so wildly unpredictable or shocking. Any regular Arsenal watcher has seen the fragility of this team, the China-doll brittleness, which hints at calamity around any corner.
Even in victory at present, such as Saturday’s home win over West Bromwich Albion, the post-match emotion for anybody connected to the club can major on relief and the aversion of crisis.
Arsenal are not so much on the back foot these days as mired in ever-decreasing circles of anxiety and frustration. It is deeply unsettling. They are football’s version of the soap opera with lots of shouting and the plot-lines have become wearingly repetitive.
Doing it his way
Wenger has enjoyed glorious success at the club and, therefore, he knows what it takes. And so he keeps doing it. As he has grown older, he has become more stubborn, more determined to prove that his way is the right way. And so he keeps pushing it, promoting it, with ever more zeal.
But Arsenal have drifted. From being title winners and, generally, contenders under his charge, they have become also-rans. The limit of the expectation level is top-four, Champions League qualification and the competition, in which Arsenal always advance to the knockout stage, offers hope, reassurance; even, the mirage of the ultimate triumph. Is it enough?
Wenger can be seen as the Sideshow Bob character in the Simpsons clip who steps on the rakes and, after each defeat against opposition that his teams would, in years gone by, have swatted aside, the questions recur. We have heard them countless times but they distil into one: Is Wenger, and the approach that he has entwined with the club’s DNA, right for the future?
Where once it would have been sacrilegious to suggest that Wenger should go, it is now a nagging discussion topic. And yet, part of the angst, part of the dizzying carousel is that, in practical terms, at least for the remainder of the season, it is a non-discussion.
Arsenal do not intend to sack Wenger and Wenger does not intend to quit. He has said, repeatedly, that he always honours his contracts and his current one takes him to the end of next season.
Ivan Gazidis, the chief executive, who runs the club on a daily basis on behalf of the majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, is hugely supportive of and sympathetic to Wenger. He believes in him; their ideology, their principles, their vision of the club as a self-sustaining business off-the-field and a stylish, distinctive team on it, are the same.
Gazidis’ commercial strategy is built on the exploitation of untapped markets, particularly in east Asia, and he hopes to tempt supporters in the region to buy into the club on an emotional and more literal level. The concepts are linked. Gazidis will tell you that for the fan in, say, China, the notion of what Arsenal stand for (attractive football, excitement, loyalty, aspiration, fighting spirit etc) is fundamental.