Mathieu Flamini was doing his best to say the right things, to see a broader picture and to tip-toe around the subject that has come to hold Arsenal, his former club, in its grip. It was a little after 10.30pm on Monday night and the Crystal Palace midfielder, who had come on as a late substitute in his team’s 3-0 thumping of Arsenal, was talking in the Selhurst Park mixed zone.
His small group of inquisitors were face-to-face with him but, all of a sudden, Flamini’s words came to be drowned out. The reason? Arsène Wenger had walked out of the stadium’s exit door behind him and, as the Arsenal manager made for the team bus, he was seen by the club’s supporters who were penned in behind the crash barriers. The boos rang out loudly and some of the fans spat furious words at him. “Get out of the club” was the gist of it.
Flamini remembers the better times under Wenger at Arsenal. He joined the club for the first of his two spells with them in the summer of 2004, when they were invincible, and he was a key member of the team that surged to the Champions League final in 2006.
“It is painful to watch what is happening at the moment because I am still an Arsenal fan,” Flamini said. “I spent many years over there so my heart is white and red. But they have so much quality in the team and I really believe they can do it [finish in the top four]. It is just a matter of how they want it. I really hope they will make it because they deserve to be in the Champions League. It is such an amazing club.”
After Arsenal had beaten West Ham United at home last Wednesday night, a group of supporters behind one of the goals chanted Wenger’s name. But Selhurst Park on Monday was an occasion when the “Wenger In” brigade were drowned out.
When the hardcore away fans accuse the players of not being “fit to wear the shirt,” as they did towards the end of the game, it feels like the point of no return has been reached. It has often been said that it is difficult to quantify the opposition to Wenger within the fan-base. In the away enclosure at Selhurst Park, it sounded as if every one of them was shouting about the players’ unworthiness for the shirt.
The abuse that came Wenger’s way as he boarded the bus was savage – the players also copped it – while up in the Sky TV studio, even Jamie Carragher struggled to keep a lid on his anger. “Graeme Souness said it best when he said Arsenal are a team of son-in-laws,” Carragher said. “Would you want that type of man for your daughter? Cowards, ducking out of challenges?” At this point, in the face of all of the fury, it was possible to smile. Carragher is, clearly, the kind of guy who would insist on a 50-50 challenge in the back garden with his prospective son-in-law.
But the gallows humour was in short supply among the Arsenal support. Flamini’s comment about it being “just a matter of how they want it” resonated for reasons that he did not intend, because the absence of desire in the Arsenal performance was what damned them.
It was shocking to see how they were beaten in the one-on-one duels and how, when they did have the ball, they routinely shuffled it sideways, rather than seeking to impose themselves. As in the 3-1 loss at West Bromwich Albion on 18 March, it was what Wenger might have called “blind possession”.
Flamini was put on the spot several times. Where did he stand on the issue of Wenger’s future, and whether he should stay on beyond the end of the season and the expiry of his current contract?
“My opinion is not important,” he replied. “I had some amazing times with Arsène Wenger. He did so much for myself. I played for many years under him. I owe him a lot. But I understand also the frustration of the fans because they are such a big club and they want their team winning. It is not an easy situation but the season is not finished.”
It was put to Flamini that Arsenal’s confidence looked shot to pieces. “We played a great game,” he countered. “We managed to be strong defensively and to find some opportunities and to score. Our confidence was high. On the other side, it is never an easy game to come and play at Palace. Arsenal conceded a goal and it was not easy to come back. The season is not finished. There are many games ahead. I believe they can do it. It is up to them.”
Arsenal have eight league games to go – plus an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City on Sunday week – and they include the trip to Tottenham Hotspur and home matches with Manchester United and Everton. They sit sixth in the table, seven points behind fourth-placed City, with a game in hand.
Flamini is right. There is almost a quarter of the season to play and there is the time for Wenger to turn things around and lead the club to yet another Champions League finish. On the other hand, there is also the time for things to unravel further and, on recent evidence, that is the likelier bet. Can Wenger still motivate his players? Their performance against Palace was actually worse after the manager’s half-time address. Are they still playing for him?
In the short-term, Wenger and the club will batten down the hatches and work towards getting a win at Middlesbrough next Monday night. Wenger will pop up briefly on Friday morning to be beaten over the head at his media conference and then it will be back to the preparations.
The broader situation takes in what is effectively a battle of wills between the chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, and Wenger. Gazidis, who runs the club on behalf of the absentee majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, would prefer for Wenger to stay. Despite everything that has happened since the end of January, he still believes in him. It is unlikely that there will be an announcement on Wenger’s future before the end of the season.
But Gazidis will insist on changes in various areas, chiefly coaching and scouting, in order to breathe fresh life into an ailing set-up. The chief scout, Steve Rowley, and the goalkeeper coach, Gerry Peyton, are in the firing line.
Gazidis would like another first-team coach to work alongside Steve Bould – ideally, another ex-Arsenal stalwart – and, possibly, a sporting director-type figure, too. That person would ensure that Arsenal were on top of developments in sports science and analysis. The club also need a new head of academy to replace the departed Andries Jonker.
The problem is that Wenger is resistant to such changes. Over the final weeks of the season, it feels as though results will provide the leverage for one party or the other. A continuation of the downturn could embolden Gazidis to impose the changes on Wenger. Then again, further on-field meltdowns will make Wenger’s position untenable – if it is not, already.
The club have worried that there is no readily available manager on the market who would represent an upgrade on Wenger. Increasingly, it has felt as though this is the biggest reason for sticking with the status quo. But it is surely a negative way of looking at things.
The manager that Wenger was is also influencing the debate. His defenders argue that greatness can never be stifled. But does he still have the stomach for the fight?
“Good question, my friend,” Flamini said, smacking one of the journalists on the arm. And, with that, he beat his retreat.