If anyone at Arsenal had any doubt how broken the club now is they were slapped with a reminder at 10.30pm last night. It was just a few yards’ walk from the away dressing room door at Selhurst Park to Arsenal’s waiting Ellison’s coach. But it was long enough for the Arsenal fans, too angry to leave, to unload their fury on the players and on Arsene Wenger himself.
This was the night when the full extent of the decay and damage to the club’s vital wiring was revealed. The fans, clearly, have given up on the manager and on the players. “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” is the deepest criticism a crowd can make and they aimed it at plenty of the players last night. Only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dared to go all the way over to the livid away end at full-time.
Just as worrying is the fact that the players have also given up on the manager. Ian Wright tweeted after the game that the dressing room was “lost” and that is certainly how it looked. Not for the first time there was little resistance to the prospect of an embarrassing loss. Because the players know that when that happens Wenger will get the blame before they do.
At any other club, losing the players and the fans would be the end of the manager. But Arsenal are different. They value stability so much that they insulate themselves from the ups and downs of form and fans. Which is fine as long as the time is functioning, but not when it is in freefall.
Wenger’s light accountability to Stan Kroenke, not exactly a regular at the Emirates, has allowed the manager to shape the club precisely as he wants it. Kroenke is happy enough as long as the money keeps rolling in, which is why a new two-year deal has been on the table for Wenger for months.
But the club does not want to appear passive in the fact of a crisis. There is emphasis on a summer of change in the coaching, scouting and academy areas, as they look for a serious new name to replaced unpopular departed academy head Andries Jonker. Arsenal have made plenty of changes in the last few years, not least to their facilities and their data analytics department. Wenger believed that Leicester City’s title triumph in 2016 showed the value of marginal gains in football and hoped Arsenal could replicate that, which is why this season has been such a disappointment.
And yet no support staff, coaches or even new players matter half as much as the manager. There is only one real lever that Arsenal have to pull here, and it concerns Wenger. The club say that they will take a “mutual” decision with Wenger on his future, which they expect to be at the end of the season. They do not want it to look like Wenger has a job for life no matter how bad things get, even if some Arsenal fans feel that is the case.
There are still eight more Premier League games for Arsenal to play this season, as well as the end of the FA Cup campaign. If Arsenal somehow turn it around, finish fourth or even win the FA Cup then there is no doubt that Wenger would stay, the club having found a perfect moment to soften what would still be taken as bad news by most fans.
But what if things go the other way? Arsenal still have to play Tottenham and Manchester United and when they host Everton on final day it could well be a play-off to decide who finishes sixth and who finishes seventh. Throw in a defeat to Manchester City in the cup semi-final and there would simply be no manageable moment for Arsenal to announce the deal.
Under those circumstances, Arsenal would like to be able to say ‘no’ as well as ‘yes’ when the season ends. They would like flexibility, or at least the appearance of it. They do not want to look as if their minds are already made up and are impervious to the reality that is getting worse every week.
Ultimately for all of the talk of transformation and transition Arsenal only have two options when the season ends, and only one of those is tenable. But do they have the nerve?