It is hard to think of another manager working amid greater tension and uncertainty than Arsene Wenger but, ahead of a match tomorrow that could decide his future, he is adamant that the pressure was more acute when his previous contract expired.
Rewind three years and Wenger’s future was the subject of similarly feverish debate before an FA Cup semi-final against Wigan that Arsenal only salvaged following a scrappy 82nd minute equaliser by Per Mertesacker. A similarly seismic moment surely looms but Wenger believes that the more stellar line-up of contenders this year has altered the dynamic.
“2014 was special pressure,” said Wenger. “We had not won a trophy for a long time. People questioned us about winning a trophy. This time, there is special opportunity. It’s really a 50-50 game. If you ask the neutrals, maybe they will say City are favourites.”
Wenger’s positioning of Arsenal as the underdogs is supporters by the bookmakers, although his claim that tomorrow will have no bearing on his future is rather more speculative. That might be true from his own perspective – and his desire to fight on as manager is clear – but the situation may yet get taken out of his hands. Arsenal have repeatedly stressed that a “mutual” decision will be made and there are significant concerns at board level over both a nightmare sequence of results and the angry unrest among fans.
The most likely scenario remains a revamped structure around Wenger that will be designed to prepare for a future without the club’s most successful manager but the award of a two-year contract is still not a formality. The big question surrounding Wenger is whether he can still construct a team to beat the very best on the biggest occasions and another drubbing at a pivotal moment of the season will further erode the already limited patience among fans.
It all leaves Wenger’s fate very possibly resting on the one competition that has been kindest to him during his 21 years as Arsenal manager. This will be an all-time record 11th FA Cup semi-final and victory would place him out on his own with a seventh triumph. Wenger shares the current record with George Ramsey, who himself spent 32 years as the manager of Aston Villa between 1884 and 1926. They are both one clear of Sir Alex Ferguson.
“I’m very proud because you have many strong managers in England for many periods,” said Wenger. “It’s not easy to do. I always thought the Cup is special. The Championship is more of a marathon and this is more condensed and a quicker reward.”
Wenger yesterday attributed his FA Cup record to how he has always placed such importance on every game, including hazardous third round games. He also believes that the FA Cup stands apart from the season and, as such, does not expect his team’s dreadful recent league form to influence tomorrow’s outcome.
“Every competition brings a psychological atmosphere,” he said. “We have seen many times teams not doing well in the league and suddenly playing very well when it is a different competition. They don’t carry the negative vibes of bad experiences.”
The problem for Arsenal is that deeply uncertain performances have been the norm since the end of January across competition. Their only wins have been against Hull City, Sutton United, Lincoln, West Ham and Middlesbrough and, in half of their past 12 games, they have been beaten while conceding three or more goals.
It is one reason why Wenger switched on Monday against Middlesbrough to a three-man defence and, even with Shkodran Mustafi injured, he is likely to persist tomorrow with that structure. Arsenal were hardly convincing in beating Middlesbrough 2-1 but their collective post-match celebration gave some hope of a renewed resolve. It was certainly in contrast to some of the strange and more individual celebrations of late.
“When you have negative results like we had it can divide or unite but at some stage you have to show you can fight together,” said Wenger. “When you go through a bad period it’s difficult in your head to win everywhere.”
Wenger does not expect Pep Guardiola to be fazed by the grandeur of a Cup semi-final but admitted that it was something which did surprise him on what was his first experience against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Villa Park in 1998.
“That’s the day when I realised how big this club is,” he said. “When you play away from home usually, you have a little part of your section for your supporters. Suddenly, when you walk out there, half of the stadium is red and half is blue. You realise it is something different. When I was a kid, I watched the games at Wembley on television. It is still massive and what is great at Wembley is that you see your fans coming in and it is a unique experience for them and their children in life that they never forget.”
The prospect of a London derby final – potentially against Tottenham Hotspur – also looms. Fans are already openly discussing the possibility of that becoming the match upon which Wenger’s entire Arsenal career will hinge. Had he thought about an Arsenal v Spurs final? “Not at all,” said Wenger. “If we had played a Championship team, I would honestly say ‘yes’. Because we play City, I don’t think about it like that. It would be absolutely stupid to speculate. Let’s first deal with City.”