Wenger may call it quits in wake of humiliation at Chelsea
LONDON — When Arsene Wenger was considering a contract extension at Arsenal back in the summer of 2010, his mood was relaxed, convivial, and even a little whimsical as he admitted that he had a date in mind for when he expected to step down from the day-to-day rigors of club management. "I’ve set myself a target until 65 and then I will certainly make a move to some different job, unless I still feel like I do today," he said, with a wry smile. Wenger is 64 at the moment. His next birthday comes in October.
Naturally, people change, and shifting environments mean that an idea someone holds one day is not set in stone for ever. But chatting back in 2010, in comfortable red leather seats inside the players lounge at the Emirates Stadium, it sounded strange to hear that Wenger had even contemplated a life away from the world that is his obsession. The training pitch, the daily interaction with footballers, the constant analysis of matches, players and ideas – that is Wenger.
Of course, there was the caveat, the "unless I still feel like I do today" quip. That get-out clause was important to make sure nothing was taken the wrong way – 65 might be earmarked, but if his health, energy levels and motivation are still beating strong, that number could easily be swatted aside. He looked as if he was rather hoping that would be the case.
How does Wenger feel right now? Some 1,000 matches into his Arsenal career, not far from his 65th birthday, he wasn’t in the mood to go into it publicly, having felt it sensible to cancel the Monday morning press conference. One can only imagine that he feels devastated. Not just because of one result, but because of the wider picture which now becomes so shaky. Wenger has had to absorb humiliating results before, and he has always been able to haul himself and his team back up somehow. But this is perhaps a little different as he is currently grappling with what he should or shouldn’t do in terms of continuing with Arsenal beyond this season.
Wenger is not great company after a defeat at the best of times. He is hardly alone in that. The management game can be a lonely one – especially when it must feel like the walls are closing in, and the fight to find an answer, to cling to a positive, to dig out a response, is the most profoundly challenging. Putting on a brave face, or talking things through with friends or family, does not necessarily work when you are wrestling with things inside your own head.
For all the speculation about where Arsenal go from here, and the consequences for Wenger’s own future with the final weeks running down on his contract, a hammer-blow defeat at Chelsea has brought into focus issues that were on his mind anyway.
Anybody who has been sitting on a new deal worth £8 million per year for a few months but has not given in to the impulse to pick up a pen obviously has some complicated reservations. Wenger has been mulling over his future for some time. He hasnât suddenly stumbled out of Stamford Bridge with a eureka moment about how he feels about managing his football club.
An extreme 6-0 defeat must hurt. It must knock you badly off kilter. It cannot be anything else for a highly competitive individual who has to confront some painful truths. One of the words he chose in the aftermath at Stamford Bridge was "puzzling". This habit of calamitous implosions in the toughest away games this season is so damaging. "It became a long afternoon. A long, dramatic, dreadful afternoon. We were shocked and knocked down," he said.
He is looking for a response, in the immediate sense against Swansea in the Premier League on Tuesday. Beyond that, the chance to win the FA Cup is crucial. It is churlish to be overly confident about a team that is so vulnerable to a complete breakdown if the opponent lands the first blow, and somehow Wenger has to prepare his team mentally to be strong enough to show their qualities in the semi-final and possibly the final.
That has the potential to be a decisive trigger in terms of Wenger’s future. A win could be the booster to convince him that he can push on to make Arsenal more competitive. A loss would be incredibly difficult to recover from. But maybe, with the club in lockdown as they deal with the Chelsea post mortem, the decision is already taking shape in Wenger’s mind. He has often said that if he doesn’t feel he is the man to lead Arsenal, he will make the judgement call. The board will not decide if it is time for someone else. He will. That is just how it is.
Arsenal’s board have been confident Wenger will stay beyond the end of this season and they want nothing else. They are almost unique in world football in that the way they operate, a 6-0 battering and the subsequent avalanche of questions about their footballing direction, does not alter anything on that score. But with the ball entirely in Wengerâs court, itâs increasingly difficult to guess whether he will choose to smash it back, or put down his raquet and walk away.