Arsène knows. But he’s not telling. At least not publicly. A manager who for years has guaranteed stability is now cultivating uncertainty. That is pathetic in both senses of the word, achingly sad but also inadequate.
Wenger revealed after his team’s miserable defeat at West Bromwich Albion that he has made up his mind about whether to accept the new contract that he was offered months ago by the club to which he has been so integral for more than two decades that it has become, in its contemporary form, his life’s work. Whatever he has decided has historic implications. But for now he chooses to keep everyone in the dark.
One can certainly understand if he believes he has earned at least the right to give his answer at a time of his choosing. That seems fair enough when it comes to any public announcement. But if he really, as he says, has not tipped off anyone at the club to a development as momentous as his departure, then that is taking self-indulgence too far. And it exposes him further to accusations of treating the club like his plaything. On the other hand, maybe he is not leaving, so it will simply be a case of Carry On Arsenal.
What is clear is that anyone who thought Wenger would not decide on his future until seeing whether his team qualified for the Champions League again or won another FA Cup was wrong. “I take a bigger perspective than that,” he explained after the defeat on Saturday. “It will not necessarily be linked with that because I’ve done the top four 20 times.”
All he would add was that while missing out on Champions League qualification for the first time in 17 years would be painful, it would not be fatal to the club he has built. “That was for a long time the case but not today,” he said. “Of course, on the sporting front it would be a blow but financially the Champions League does not have the impact any more that it had five or six years ago, because of the influx of the television money.” He also suggested that failing to reach the Champions League might make Arsenal fans appreciate it all the more whenever they gain admission again. Will he still be the manager by then? All we can do for now is try to interpret his teasing.
Was there, for instance, a clue in the response he gave when asked what he thought about the Arsenal fans at The Hawthorns who held up banners calling for him to quit? “Everybody in life is responsible for his own behaviour,” he said. “I don’t judge other people. I give my best. As long as I am at the club, whether for two more years, 10 more years or four more months, that will not be different. As for all the rest, everybody has to look at themselves.”
What that reply demonstrated is that Wenger remains proud of the way he has conducted himself throughout most of his career and of the way he has conducted Arsenal. It is important to remember that he arrived at the club after being cheated out of a league title in France by Marseille’s bribery and a year after Arsenal had been forced to sack a manager, George Graham, for taking bungs. He knows integrity cannot be taken for granted.
José Mourinho constantly emits conspiracy theories but often they seem part of his own diabolical theatre, whereas Wenger has a deep-seated conviction the football world is full of evil-doers and he has a sacred mission to stand against them: the corrupt, the financially doped, the stupid, the rude.
When Bayern Munich whipped his team 10-2 on aggregate he seemed to believe genuinely that the main differences between the sides were an incorrect penalty call and a bogus red card. Even after the defeat at West Brom, where he admitted his team “lacked confidence”, he wondered what might have been if James McClean had not escaped a sending-off for a foul that left Alexis Sánchez with ankle damage. Verily, the path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of cloggers. But does that mean the righteous man should quit? It may actually reinforce Wenger’s belief that he must stay.
Wenger said previously that he is “lucid enough” to know what to do next. What if that means he is aware declaring his intention to stay now would risk inciting the more uppity Gooners to descend on the Emirates with high-end pitchforks and smartphones that look like flaming torches? Best, under those circumstances, to wait a while, maybe to combine the announcement with, say, news of the signing of a slinky new midfielder.
In the meantime, Arsenal’s performances get worse. Their weak-willed players seemed close to zombified at The Hawthorns. Wenger told the TV interviewer beforehand that 47% of West Brom’s goals this season had come from set pieces so his team had prepared accordingly. West Brom knew those preparations would amount to no sort of resistance and were proved right when Craig Dawson headed in twice from corners. “We knew he’d have a free run into the box,” said Jonny Evans. “They play a zonal defence from corners. So sometimes the lads on the six-yard box, unless you maybe have three players, you always try to get a block in to stop the player getting a run. But Daws seemed to have plenty of space. They probably didn’t defend that as well as they should have.” The defending was no better for West Brom’s other goal, poked into the net by Hal Robson-Kanu after more ineptitude at the back, especially by goalkeeper David Ospina.
What next for Arsenal? Only one man knows. Tony Pulis was asked whether he had any inkling as to Wenger’s intentions. He said he did not. “I just wished him all the best,” he said. “I’d be surprised if he goes.” Asked why, he jokily replied: “Because he told me”. As if.