Arsenal are preparing to put off a decision about Arsene Wenger’s future until the end of the season amid mounting uncertainty over whether a planned new two-year contract remains feasible.
A sequence of seven defeats in 12 matches has left increasing numbers of supporters in open revolt at the prospect of Wenger staying on but, even after Monday’s 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, the club’s directors are not willing to write off the club’s most successful manager.
With Wenger wanting to fight on and still certain that he can inspire Arsenal from the biggest crisis of his tenure, it leaves any early announcement that he is leaving impossible. Equally, despite plans being made by chief executive Ivan Gazidis for structural changes around Wenger and the first-team, that process cannot all be completed within the coming days.
The positions of goalkeeping coach Gerry Peyton, fitness coach Tony Colbert and chief scout Steve Rowley are all believed to be under scrutiny, although Wenger is arguing only for evolution rather than major change. Candidates from across Europe for a sporting director role are being assessed while a new academy head is also being sought.
It leaves Arsenal conscious that the current uncertainty is potentially damaging to result but simply feeling unable to confirm definite decisions. When a decision is made, the plan is for it to be communicated to supporters via the club rather than Wenger himself.
Gazidis was personally at Selhurst Park on Monday when fans turned openly on the team with chants of ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’ and, despite the perception that majority owner Stan Kroenke is separated from the current angst, there is daily communication.
Kroenke is also physically present for monthly board meetings and, while he regards Wenger as one of the finest coaches he has ever met across any sport, he is well aware both of the anger among fans and the team’s terrible recent form. The way in which players have reacted to recent on-field set-backs even during games has been especially alarming and it is understood that there was silence in the dressing-room after Monday's defeat.
It all leaves Wenger’s entire 21-year tenure at the club largely hinging on the last eight Premier League games of the season and then also an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. Should they unexpectedly win that match, a final against Chelsea or Tottenham would await and an opportunity to end the season on the high of Wenger winning an all-time record seventh FA Cup. More likely on current form is that they will lose the semi-final and not challenge to close the current seven-point gap to the top four Premier League positions.
Arsenal did also delay the announcement of a new contract for Wenger in 2014 until after that season’s FA Cup final and, while there was also considerable tension that year about the Frenchman staying on, opposition has grown over recent months. In a recent poll of fans, the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust recorded a clear majority in favour of Wenger leaving and they have communicated that stance to the club. Arsenal say that fan opinion is one of a range of factors they will consider when what they expect to be a “mutual” decision is made. In Wenger’s favour is the absence of any obvious managerial alternative. Mathieu Flamini was part of those Arsenal teams that finished second last year and challenged briefly for the 2008 Premier League title, but was a Crystal Palace substitute during Monday’s defeat.
“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. They have so much quality in the team and I really believe they can do it [finish in the top four].I really hope they will make it because they deserve to be in the Champions League. I understand also the frustration of the fans because they are such a big club. It is not an easy situation but the season is not finished.”