The ‘Wenger In/Wenger Out’ hokey-cokey made its latest swift movement on Sunday at Wembley Stadium. And in just over a month on the very same football pitch, this whole drawn-out saga may be ‘shaking it all about’ for the final time.
Arsenal’s come-from-behind victory over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City to reach the FA Cup final had many fans and pundits confidently declaring it had silenced the growing contingent of Gunners supporters demanding Arsene Wenger make 2016/17 his last in charge at the Emirates.
Some cited his superb cup record – Arsenal are in their third final in four years, having won it in 2014 and 2015. Others added that the North Londoners were, after all, only at risk of missing out on Champions League football and finishing beneath rivals Tottenham. They’re not exactly suffering the hardships of a Blackpool or Leyton Orient, for instance.
The problem is, we know the debate will come straight back up when Arsenal take on Chelsea on May 27. Wenger’s troops are likely to head into the final with their worst league finish in quite some time, hoping to salvage their season with silverware at the expense of a team they’ve struggled against many times in recent years and a coach who really knows how to use the pressure and expectations on his opponent against them.
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Of course, most of us are aware that it will keep coming up until the day Wenger finally leaves his post as Gunners boss. Why? Because the current scenario is very similar to Arsenal’s arrival at the 2014 final, when it felt as though defeat to Hull City would ensure the end of his reign.
There were also several voices suggesting three years ago that Wenger could well step down on a high, should he end what was a nine-year trophy drought for the club. He did win the cup, but he didn’t step down. There are now voices suggesting the same could happen, if he overcomes the Blues at Wembley to end his toughest season yet in a blaze of glory. I cannot help but feel it’ll be the same this time around.
It’s going to be quite misleading if Wenger is ultimately judged on a cup final preceded by wins over non-league sides such as Lincoln and Sutton after perhaps their lowest league finish under Arsene, a failure which would see them fall short of standards many felt were ‘settling’ in the first place.
Make no mistake about it: Arsenal earned their spot in the final on Sunday. On two occasions, they responded to adversity in a way many critics (and some of their own) feel they’re often incapable of achieving. Both their weathering of the early City ball dominance and their rebounding from 0-1 showed qualities that have been far too rare at the club in recent years.
In fact, a tense and physical first 45 minutes was a sight to behold, as perhaps the two most precious sides in the Premier League kicked the you-know-what out of each other. And Arsenal were the ones initiating such a battle.
You would think that Arsenal’s win over City serves more as ammunition for the anti-Wenger brigade than it does for those looking to hush the protests. Seeing what Arsenal are capable of on occasion shows this is more than just horrific luck with injuries, a philosophical stubbornness on tactics or economic frugality.
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— Sama Eatfood (@manueljackfrost) April 23, 2017
If the Arsenal at Wembley on Sunday showed up more often than the Arsenal who have fallen out of the European qualification spots entirely, there probably wouldn’t be any ridiculous aviation publicity stunts or groan-inducing rants on social media. Or, at least, you’d hope Arsenal fans wouldn’t behave like that. But you never know what one solitary defeat to a mid-table side could do to a certain type of supporter at any given time.
Even in a fantastic, cup final-securing victory, Arsenal and Wenger showed exactly why the long-term future of the club’s first-team set-up is in more doubt than ever before.
And yet, don’t be surprised if, win lose or draw, the big all-London final on May 27 offers us no definitive answer at all – just like three years ago when the Gunners came from 2-0 down and avoided internal fan conflict as big as it is now.