Arsene Wenger, a famously avid viewer of football matches when not overseeing his own team, was asked this week whether he still watches as many games now as he did during his early days at Arsenal. His reply was pertinent for a couple of reasons. “Yes, I watch every football game,” he said. “International games are less interesting but I did see one good game, Spain against France.”
Funny he should mention that game. Until recently the Arsenal manager would probably have that viewed contest from a gantry in Paris, as for 12 years he was a star co-commentator on France matches for the French channel TF1. But after the 2014 World Cup the channel decided not to offer Wenger a new contract. Cost-cutting was mentioned as a reason but it did not escape most observers’ attention that the quality of his punditry had deteriorated to the point that many wondered what Wenger still had to offer, with Le Monde noting that for a while he had been “criticised by television viewers for the brevity of his contributions and his interminable silences.”
French TV viewers did not go so far as to hire planes to carry banners calling for fresher punditry but the parallel between their ennui and the despair of the current Wenger Out brigade at Arsenal is clear, all the same. It was already clear back then, allegations of Wenger’s managerial staleness not being new.
But Arsenal show no signs of withdrawing their contract offer and it seems only a matter of time before Wenger confirms that he will stay at the club for at least two more years. All the 67-year-old would say publicly on the subject this week was to repeat that he has no other interests outside football and no intention of quitting management.
“I will not retire,” he said. “Retiring is for young people. For old people retirement is dying.” He chuckled after saying that, seemingly spotting a dark humour in his own oblique allusion to the possibility of dying in a dugout.
That is a thought on which no one wants to dwell, of course. Nor, on a slightly less sombre note, do Arsenal fans enjoy having the impression that they are expected to accept Wenger as their manager for the foreseeable future primarily because he has nothing else to do. He has to give them a better reason than that.
There would be no better time to demonstrate to Arsenal fans why he deserves to remain in charge than during Sunday’s visit to the Emirates by Manchester City. But there is a risk that Wenger will have to watch a reprise of that dominant midweek victory by Spain over France, except with City in the role of the ball-hogging tormentors and Arsenal cast as the impotent chasers.
Arsenal’s last match was that miserable loss against West Bromwich Albion, their fourth defeat in five league matches. After that game Wenger pointed out – correctly – that his team are in the midst of “a unique bad patch”, his team having never suffered quite such a hapless run during his two decades in charge even if in recent years they have become accustomed to stumbling.
The question now is, given that the losing streak is unprecedented, has the manager done anything unprecedented to address it? He hinted this week that the club, whether or not he is still the manager, will try to make defensive recruits in the summer but Arsenal fans are well used to promises like that and know they do not mean an effective solution is nigh.
It would be more heartening to hear that Wenger has tried something new in preparation for the next match. His options have been limited this week, of course, because many players were on international duty but he has surely had time to exert some influence. On Thursday he suggested hopefully that the players who went away with their countries may have benefitted from a change of atmosphere. Is that it?
Arsenal lost 2-1 at City in December despite taking an early lead, with Wenger explaining afterwards that his team “dropped physically” in the second half and “maybe we dropped a bit mentally”. That is a familiar lament.
Arsenal’s only victory over a top six side so far this season was September’s 3-0 spanking of Chelsea. That, of course, proved to be a turning point for Chelsea, forcing Antonio Conte to rethink his approach and ultimately switch to a 3-4-3 formation that has helped the Stamford Bridge side to storm to the top of the league.
All the other managers in the top half of the table have also tried that formation, and other strategies, at some stage this season. Except Wenger, who tends not to make radical tactical adjustments. That would be fine if he had some other way of inspiring improved performances from his team. But at the moment whatever he is doing and saying in training sessions and the dressing room appears to stimulate his players about as much as his punditry thrilled TV viewers. His players increasingly look like they have tuned out.
Wenger insists that his own drive remains strong even if one thing that has changed is the amount of scrutiny under which he operates, which is a consequence, he says, of the way the club has expanded under him. “I carry a bit more pressure on my shoulders than 20 years ago but the hunger is exactly the same,” he said. “When you see what the club was and what it is today – when I arrived we were 70 [employees], we are 700 today. One share was £400, it is £18,000 today.” That sort of success does not excite many fans.
“I can understand the fans that are unhappy with every defeat but the only way to have victory is to stick together with the fans and give absolutely everything,” added Wenger.
His task is to get his team to clarify exactly what more he has to give.