It wasn’t so long ago that even suggesting Wenger should be moved aside would have been seen as heresy; but times have changed. Following Tuesday’s Champions League home defeat by Bayern Munich — days after Arsenal were knocked out of the FA Cup by Blackburn — the internet was flooded with discussion threads about Wenger’s future.
The online home of fanzine The Gooner saw almost 3,500 posts and 75,000 viewings on a ‘Wenger: for him or against him’ forum which highlighted just how divided the Arsenal community have become.
There were angry, sometimes physical, confrontations between fans at the Bayern game and even claims that some supporters were forcibly escorted out of the stadium for daring to start a ‘Wenger Out’ chant.
Those who want the Frenchman gone are vocal and angry; but are still matched in numbers by those passionately loyal to the man who all but invented the modern Arsenal and who cherish the club’s reputation for remaining aloof of the knee-jerk sackings made by clubs like Chelsea.
But let’s be clear; there is absolutely no chance of Arsene Wenger being sacked. He has become such an intrinsic part of the club’s hierarchy it would be virtually impossible. So the big question is how can harmony be restored? The options are:
1 Wenger retires on his own terms
An unlikely scenario, of course, as Wenger has always been passionate about honouring contracts and to leave before his current deal ends in 2014 would be an admission of failure. But his pre-match rant ahead of the Bayern game, in which he complained of receiving a lack of respect, makes you wonder just how much longer he can put up with the c criticism of his decision-making. “You’ll miss me when I’m gone,” he famously told journalists on Monday. The words of a man who hasn’t even considered quitting?
2 Arsenal announce Wenger’s plan to move to a directorial role at the end of his contract
There has always been a long-term game plan at Arsenal to keep Wenger inside the club even when he no longer wishes to continue as manager. Bringing that time forward would give the club a good year to find a successor and allow fans to unite behind the Frenchman for his farewell campaign.
3 Arsenal work on some high-profile signings for next season and announce them as soon as possible
There has been plenty of criticism of Wenger’s team selection and tactics in recent months, particularly after cup defeats to Blackburn and Bradford. But if you dig deep the biggest resentment comes from the club’s transfer policy of allowing star names to leave and refusing to spend big to replace them.
If Wenger could have added Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas to his team on Tuesday it certainly would have been a different night; but you suspect it would take a dramatic change in direction to bring in the kind of high-profile players fans crave. The arrival of a Falcao or Neymar would change the entire atmosphere of the club — but can anyone see it happening?
4 Arsenal hand Wenger a new contract to underline their support and begin a charm offensive to win over supporters
This would be the bravest and toughest option of all; but there are plenty inside the Emirates who would favour it. Wenger may have been upset at the timing of recent reports that a new two-year contract has been prepared for him; but there is likely to be at least some basis to the story.
There is also a feeling that having worked so hard to keep the club’s finances in check during the building of a new stadium, Arsenal are now perfectly placed to flourish once Uefa’s financial fair-play regulations begin to hit opponents who have been used to spending more profligately.
Only yesterday actor and author Tom Watt, one of Arsenal’s most-quoted celebrity fans, summed up that viewpoint by saying: “We are just at the point now to have made money to go and spend on top class players. I trust Wenger to put it right.”
5 The board open up to the possibility of a Alisher Usmanov takeover
Russia’s richest man currently owns a 29% stake and has been highly critical of the way Arsenal has been run under majority shareholder Stan Kroenke — even publishing an open letter to the board accusing them of showing a lack of ambition. Not surprisingly the team’s current plight has earned him extra support from fans. There are no signs of him making a move at present — and even fewer signs that Kroenke would consider any offer. But fresh ownership would certainly provide a new focus.
6 Arsenal win the rest of their matches in the Premier League, including away at Tottenham, and suddenly everyone is happy
This solution is probably best left in dreamland; but then which of the other options are grounded in reality? None of the options open to the Arsenal board are without complications; but sitting back and doing nothing could be the biggest mistake of all unless Wenger can work a miracle.
Even now, as Arsenal prepare for a crucial game against Aston Villa on Saturday, captain Thomas Vermaelen felt it necessary to defend his manager.
“I know in football everybody thinks really short term, they don’t look at the long term. But he has done a lot for this club and just because it’s not going well at the moment, it doesn’t mean you don’t stand behind him,” said the Belgian defender.
“We have to look at ourselves and stick together in difficult times. The fans must not forget that we need them because they belong to the team, they belong to the club. We have to stand behind each other, that’s the only thing we can do.”
Those kind of well-meant platitudes have worked in the past and Arsenal came back strongly last season, for instance, to earn a Champions League place; but you sense this time words are not enough. A club without harmony is never going to be victorious.