Arsene Wenger is the easy-going school teacher everyone likes, but exam time is coming for failing Arsenal

Miguel Delaney
The Independent
If Wenger stays on, he has a lot of work to do: Getty
If Wenger stays on, he has a lot of work to do: Getty

Around the Arsenal training ground and squad right now, you really wouldn’t get the sense that they are a side under siege, badly in need of a win against Manchester City this weekend.

There is a good mood, the same "banter". It backs up something rather substantial that Arsene Wenger said on Thursday, in an answer to what is one of the biggest questions about the club right now, beyond the big question.

The Arsenal boss was typically trying to stifle yet more talk about his own future, only to say something rather eye-opening from discussing it. He claimed that the uncertainty over whether he will sign a contract extension is not affecting the team.

That is a sizeable statement, given that how Arsenal finish the season will greatly fire debate if he stays, something now seen as almost inevitable.

“No,” Wenger so clearly responded when asked the question. “The priority in life is always to focus on what is important and not to look for excuses. At the moment our results are not going the way we want, but as well we have to make sure that the priority for us is what happens on the pitch.”

And yet, what is happening on the pitch would appear to offer the greatest evidence against that view. They don't look unaffected.

There is, first of all, the fact that Arsenal are currently on the worst run of Wenger’s entire time in north London, having lost four of their last five league games, and only won three games at all in the last two months. Those victories were at home to Hull City and against two non-league sides in Sutton United and Lincoln.

You could put the latter stat down to the fact it has been such a disrupted months, with so many extended breaks due to the FA Cup and international week, but then there’s the second problem from the pitch: just how bad they looked in the 3-1 defeat to West Brom. It was just so lax, and like a team that didn’t have that inner drive or motivation of fighting for something bigger than that one game. It naturally led to a lot of criticism over whether they were fighting for their manager, and Jamie Redknapp was one of those to say “they have let him down”.

Iwobi has voiced his support for Wenger (Arsenal FC via Getty)
Iwobi has voiced his support for Wenger (Arsenal FC via Getty)

Wenger dismissed that, maintaining the more even-handed mood he struck after that defeat. Despite how bad the last two months have been, he felt it was just one of those days.

“It was the kind of game you can get in England. I agree that we had blind possession - we had 70 per cent possession going nowhere. With the possession we had, we had not enough goal chances.

“We had two shots on goal, when you have 70 per cent of the ball, that’s not good enough. We were caught where West Brom are strong and where we are usually quite good, defending set-pieces. Is it down to the fact that the players went to international games, had their minds already not completely, were we underestimating West Brom? It’s difficult to say, but I agree with you that something was missing there.”

The last few words would seem to cut across Wenger’s own line about 'not looking for excuses'. At the same time, those close to the club say that if you were to look for players unsettled or concerned about the manager’s situation, you would struggle to find them. The mood is relaxed. Even more importantly, the mood is also that Wenger should stay.

When players like Alex Iwobi and Olivier Giroud publicly back the manager, it is understood they are not just saying it because they pretty much have to. It is because they greatly believe it. The overwhelming majority view is that Wenger should continue.

As admirable as that loyalty is, it also raises a lot of questions about how the squad is put together, and its guiding mentality. One reason the players like Wenger so much is that he essentially indulges them, with his intention being that such faith will gradually allow them to express themselves with excellent football. One big flaw with that is that it means there are no real exacting standards at the club, and no real punishment for below-par displays - beyond the lack of truly elite medals.

It’s difficult not to feel some disgruntlement or worry about the managerial situation would actually be a good thing, because it would reflect worry about whether this team is still on course to challenge for proper trophies - whether Wenger stays or not.

Instead, it’s even more difficult to escape the analogy that the Arsenal dressing room is like one of those school classrooms where the long-serving teacher is greatly liked, but partly because the lessons are so easy-going. That’s fine and enjoyable, until it comes to exam-time… or the time to win the big games.

Whatever the truth is, Arsenal need to show some effect in Sunday’s big game. Otherwise, there will be even bigger questions. And that mood might well sour.

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