Arsene Wenger has admitted he is “in a place that I don’t want to be”, after Arsenal’s run of dire results, describing the Premier League fixture at home to Manchester City as a game “I absolutely have to win”.
Although the Arsenal manager was relaxed and even joking in his briefing ahead of Sunday’s home encounter there was an edge – and a realization that he is reaching a defining month - to his answers.
In fact when asked why he appeared so relaxed, after the international break which was entered into with the horrible loss away to West Bromwich Albion, Wenger’s reply was illuminating.
“I don’t know if I am in a much better place,” he said. “I am just in a place that I don’t want to be. I just lost a big game. And I will play another one that I absolutely have to win. I am focused and I know what to do. I managed enough games that I know that in football you have to go sometimes through tricky periods. I think as well a very difficult period is a good opportunity to show what you are about and for the team to show what they are about.”
Arsenal’s worst run of league form in Wenger’s 20 seasons – and their worst since Stewart Houston was manager in April 1995 - has coincided with the increasingly fractious, divided debate as to whether he should stay, with his current contract running out at the season’s end and a two-year deal expected to be signed. There was also the embarrassing Champions League exit to Bayern Munich, 10-2 on aggregate.
Wenger is desperate to carry on – and it would now be a shock if he did not – but is well-aware that he needs to turn the club’s momentum around as they have dropped to sixth place and are in danger of missing out on Champions League qualification for the first time under him. Doing so would demolish one of his strongest arguments for staying.
There was further sign of the fan discontent on Friday with the Arsenal Supporters Trust stating that a survey of its 1,000-strong membership showed that 78 per cent (of the 550 who replied) believed Wenger was no longer the right man to lead the club. It is the first time that AST has balloted its members during a season and reflects the divisions. In the last survey of its kind, 18 months ago, Wenger’s approval rating was 84 per cent.
Arsenal have also not been this low in the league table at this stage of the season since before they left Highbury for the Emirates Stadium in 2006 and Wenger admitted it has been a “strange season” adding: “because it just looked it escaped from us in moments. Not for a lot. But every time for a fraction that was on the other side. That is why it is very difficult because it started at Everton where we were 1-0 up. At City we were 1-0 up. And things went just against us and we could not respond. But as well it is a weird feeling.”
Arsenal’s collapse can, indeed, be traced back to last December when they faced, in successive away games, on Tuesday 13 Dec and then Sunday 18 Dec, Everton and Arsenal. They lost both 2-1 as they again exposed their maddening fragility.
Indeed up until that point Arsenal had played 15 league matches, collecting 34 points, and averaged 2.27 points per game. Since then their league form has showed: played 12, just 16 points gained and an astonishing average of only 1.33 points per match. That is some damning collapse for a club of Arsenal resources and ambition.
“The self-esteem of a group is not set in stone,” Wenger argued. “It's linked as well with the last results. The confidence linked with the last results drops but where the character comes in is the desire to fight against it and to fight together. And the natural tendency is to go a little bit into your shell and think a little bit more about you and not about the group.”
That has, undoubtedly, happened at Arsenal and the question is: has Wenger got the ability to motivate these players again or have they, subconsciously or otherwise, stopped playing for him as Alan Shearer claimed in his “Match of the Day” analysis after the West Brom defeat? Do they, also, have that “character”?
Another factor for Wenger and Arsenal – and one he struggled to explain – is given the uncertainty how can the club plan properly? “But that again, I told you, do I stay two months or ten years, I plan for,” Wenger said. “I do my job exactly the same.”
But players will want to know who the manager will be; who they are playing for? “Yes, yes of course,” Wenger said. “But we are always honest and when you speak with people you are always honest. Arsenal is a world brand today, respected all over the world, and the Arsenal name is bigger than my name and come to Arsenal is more important than… you don’t come to Arsene Wenger, you come to Arsenal.” Lose to City and it may be difficult to persuade players to come for either.