Thursday 14 December 2017

Arsenal to hedge their bets on Wenger future until end of the season

Arsene Wenger cuts a lonely figure after humiliating Crystal Palace loss. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Arsene Wenger cuts a lonely figure after humiliating Crystal Palace loss. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Jeremy Wilson

Arsenal are preparing to put off a decision about Arsene Wenger's future until the end of the season amid mounting uncertainty over whether a planned new two-year contract remains feasible.

A sequence of seven defeats in 12 matches has left increasing numbers of supporters in open revolt at the prospect of Wenger staying but, even after Monday's 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, the club's directors are not willing to write off the club's most successful manager.

With Wenger wanting to fight on and still certain that he can inspire Arsenal from the biggest crisis of his tenure, it makes any early announcement that he is leaving impossible.

Equally, despite plans being made by chief executive Ivan Gazidis for structural changes around Wenger and the first team, that process cannot all be completed within the coming days.

The positions of goalkeeping coach Gerry Peyton, fitness coach Tony Colbert and chief scout Steve Rowley are all believed to be under scrutiny, although Wenger is arguing only for evolution rather than major change.

Candidates from across Europe for a sporting director role are being assessed while a new academy head is also being sought.

It leaves Arsenal conscious that the uncertainty is potentially damaging to results but feeling unable to confirm definite decisions.

Communicated

When a decision is made, the plan is for it to be communicated to supporters via the club rather than Wenger himself.

Gazidis was at Selhurst Park on Monday when fans turned openly on the team with chants of "You're not fit to wear the shirt".

And, despite the perception that majority owner Stan Kroenke is separated from the angst, there is daily communication.

Kroenke is also present for monthly board meetings and, while he regards Wenger as one of the finest coaches he has ever met in any sport, he is well aware both of the anger among fans and the team's terrible recent form.

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The way in which players have reacted to recent on-field setbacks even during games has been especially alarming and it is understood that there was silence in the dressing room after Monday's defeat.

It all leaves Wenger's entire 21-year tenure at the club largely hinging on the last eight Premier League games of the season and then also an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City.

Should they unexpectedly win that match, a final against Chelsea or Tottenham would await and an opportunity to end the season on the high of Wenger winning an all-time record seventh FA Cup.

More likely on form is that they will lose the semi-final and not challenge to close the seven-point gap to the top four Premier League positions.

If anyone at Arsenal had any doubt how broken the club now is they were slapped with a reminder at 10.30pm on Monday night.

It was just a few yards' walk from the away dressing room door at Selhurst Park to Arsenal's waiting coach. But it was long enough for the Arsenal fans, too angry to leave, to unload their fury on the players and on Wenger.

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This was the night when the full extent of the decay and damage to the club's vital wiring was revealed. The fans, clearly, have given up on the manager and on the players.

"You're not fit to wear the shirt" is the deepest criticism a crowd can make and they aimed it at plenty of the players. Only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dared to go all the way over to the livid away end at full-time.

Just as worrying is the fact that the players have also given up on the manager.

Ian Wright tweeted after the game that the dressing room was "lost" and that is certainly how it looked.

Resistance

Not for the first time there was little resistance to the prospect of an embarrassing loss. Because the players know that when that happens Wenger will get the blame before they do.

At any other club, losing the players and the fans would be the end of the manager.

But Arsenal are different. They value stability so much that they insulate themselves from the ups and downs of form and fans.

Which is fine as long as the time is functioning, but not when it is in freefall.

There is only one real lever that Arsenal have to pull here, and it concerns Wenger. But do they have the nerve?

Arsenal delayed the announcement of a new contract for Wenger in 2014 until after that season's FA Cup final and, while there was also considerable tension that year about the Frenchman staying on, opposition has grown over recent months.

In a recent poll of fans, the Arsenal Supporters' Trust recorded a clear majority in favour of Wenger leaving and they have communicated that stance to the club.

Arsenal say that fan opinion is one of a range of factors they will consider when what they expect to be a "mutual" decision is made.

In Wenger's favour is the absence of any obvious managerial alternative. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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