There is a distinct feeling not only that any new deal will be a contract too far for Arsene Wenger, but also – sadly – that he is beginning to resemble a dying relative.
Wenger has become a shell of his former self. He is undoubtedly Arsenal’s most impactful and most celebrated manager. But his legitimacy has been irrevocably damaged by years of failing to identify and address weaknesses and being unable to adapt to the changes in contemporary football.
You begin to feel his weight on the club as he sits in the dugout with his head in his hands. He has become a financial and footballing burden on Arsenal, with fans realising that there is now no other way to for him to leave than for him to be forced out.
Pity has become the overriding emotion at The Emirates, with fans in increasing numbers now desperate for the Arsenal boss to go so as he is able to salvage what is left of his legacy.
Like the fans at matches, Wenger appears miserable and unable to inspire or be inspired by his team. We all know he is hurting; his expressions on the touchline and post-match interviews tell us this.
But what is perhaps even more worrying is the mockery being made of the demands placed upon modern football managers by the Arsenal board.
Yes, the ‘hire em and fire em’ culture that has enveloped the game in recent years is quite extraordinary. Most football fans believe that their clubs do not show enough loyalty to managers, opting for short bursts of success over long-term project building.
“Sometimes swift, decisive change can instigate an upturn in form and the change of climate at a club that is desperately needed”
But from Wenger’s case, we can learn a lot about the pitfalls of pursuing the exact opposite policy: of idolising a manager, ceasing to apply pressure on him, and allowing him to decide when and how he leaves.
Just a few weeks ago, we were given a particularly cruel demonstration of football’s impatience at Leicester. Claudio Ranieri, a history-maker and record-breaker, was forced out by the players he had lost and by an unforgiving chairman.
But, callous though it was, the sacking proved beneficial to results on the pitch. The transformation of Leicester’s players has been really quite remarkable, especially given the significance that their former manager had in building the players and turning them into household names. Many were previously average and unknown.
What we are beginning to deduce is that, sometimes swift, decisive change can instigate an upturn in form and the change of climate at a club that is desperately needed.
Wenger, quite unlike Leicester’s chairman, is markedly more conservative, opting to keep around him favoured, loyal coaching staff and making subtle adjustments to the squad, both in terms of tactical organisation and transfers.
“The impatient, fast-paced, money-driven culture that has wrapped itself around modern football could actually be the new ‘stability’”
For years, pundits praised the determination with which Arsenal stuck to its principles. They maintained that the club was an example to others who perhaps were a little too trigger-happy when it came to firing managers.
This adoration has wavered somewhat, especially this season. Now they talk about Wenger in a much more resigned way, after finally subscribing to my long-held view that stability can no longer be expressed in the way that Arsenal think it can be, and that Wenger ought to step aside in order for the club to adapt and move forward.
It is poignant, for instance, that Wenger’s greatest years came when he himself was the source of change in the Premier League, and not in the years that he remained rigidly focused on his values, allowing himself to be bypassed and out-competed.
The impatient, fast-paced, money-driven culture that has wrapped itself around modern football could actually be the new ‘stability’.
Of course, not every club that ditches its manager after a few years of service or halfway through a season will reap the rewards of their decision.
But signs are showing (the sackings of Mourinho at Chelsea and Klopp at Dortmund) that a policy of severing ties with even big-name managers and sending a message that short term under-achievement is not good enough could well prove fruitful.
Wenger’s free rein and effective self-employment at Arsenal is not defying the system as well as his club thinks it might be. Yes, Wenger has doubled share prices at The Emirates, but ultimately the football is what does the talking.
Actually, the message Arsenal’s embarrassingly desperate loyalty towards him shows is one of mockery. I believe that Wenger’s coasting along makes a mockery of the intense demands placed upon football manages in the modern environment.
Football management has changed, and with that, so too has the pressure on managers, who must live up to the fact that their use-by dates are now shorter and the patience of boards similarly so.
The lack of pressure being applied to Wenger is telling on the players, who appear starkly unmotivated and lacking in heart and leadership. The alleged stability that Wenger has provided, during a period that has seen Arsenal leave Highbury, angry protests from fans and a noticeable dilution of expectation and ambition, has been primarily characterised by a fundamental decline, both in terms of trophies and league positioning.
But, as Wenger reminded us in an interview with beIN sports this week, “It isn’t all about trophies.” Well, clearly. But at least Arsenal has its stability…