When it comes to having to deal with the media, there are few managers in world football quite as well-versed as Arsene Wenger.
While he may be emotional in the immediate aftermath of a defeat, at the club’s training ground for press conferences ahead of fixtures he is incredibly engaging company.
The Frenchman is charming and witty, often coming out with humorous one-liners that have the assembled media hanging on his every word.
Wenger very much holds court over proceedings and is willing to talk about anything from religion to politics in a range of languages. The 68-year-old has even paid respect to global stars outside of the world of football during his press briefings, as shown by his brilliant off-the-cuff tribute following the death of David Bowie in January 2016.
“I must say, the message he gave to my generation was very important because it was after the Second World War and it was basically - be strong enough to be yourself,” said Wenger.
But yesterday Wenger was in no mood to talk as the media descended on Arsenal’s snow-covered training ground.
After Sunday’s Carabao Cup final loss to Manchester City, Wenger’s position as manager of Arsenal has come under more scrutiny than ever before.
Some will argue that last season’s circus around whether the Frenchman would sign a new contract was more fractious than the current climate, but the fact that a list of candidates to replace him is now being reported by national newspapers in England suggests otherwise.
Indeed, it has been reported that Wenger’s position will be reviewed by the Arsenal board in the summer as he hinted during the club’s annual general meeting in October of last year.
“I want to see what the board thinks of my performance,” Wenger said then. “After that we decide where we go from there. My desire has always been to respect my contracts, but that is what I meant.”
However, with that information now once again in the public eye and Arsenal struggling in the Premier League, Wenger was not so keen to discuss it yesterday. This time there was no quick or witty response to defuse the situation as instead a heated exchange followed.
“My position is my position,” said Wenger, when asked if his job would be reviewed by the club’s hierarchy in the summer.
“Honestly, that’s the last worry I have at the moment. My worry is to focus, to get the team ready for tomorrow’s game.”
The journalist then pressed Wenger if he was aware that there was a review due at the end of the season.
“I just told you, I just gave you the answer of what my way of thinking is,” replied the Arsenal manager, uncharacteristically fidgeting in his seat.
“It’s the next game. We are in that kind of situation where you want to focus on the next game. I don’t ask you if your position is reviewed at the end of the season.”
Pushed to explain further, Wenger again hit back and replied: “I just told you the answer.
“If you need clarity, I can repeat exactly the same answer. Does it stop you to sleep that my position is uncertain or would not be certain, or is certain? No.”
Such an exchange was a far cry from last season. Back then it was often the case an Arsenal performance would leave journalists concluding that Wenger’s time was almost up.
But then, at his press conference ahead of the next fixture, Wenger would charm the media and belief would shift to the idea of him staying on.
This time, though, few of the assembled media left London Colney with that opinion.
Amid the deluge of questions about his future, Wenger stressed how he was focused on delivering results. He would leave the discussions of how well he was doing in his job to others.
“My job is to focus on performing and my job is to perform,” he said. “It’s for other people to judge me, it isn’t for me to evaluate that.”
However, with such a statement, the usually slick Wenger tied himself in knots as current performances suggest a distinct lack of focus.
Since the turn of the year Arsenal have played 12 matches, losing half of them. Those defeats include being dumped out of the FA Cup in the third round for the first time in Wenger’s career, by a Nottingham Forest side without a manager.
Arsenal sit 10 points off the top four in the Premier League and Champions League qualification for next season now looks unlikely unless they can win the Europa League.
Qualifying for the Champions League used to be Wenger’s calling card, the stick with which he could bat away any questions about his work. Now it is the very rope being used to hang him. Tonight’s opponents Manchester City, by the way, are 27 points ahead.
Wenger too used to be able to boast about how Arsenal played the best football in the country, even if trophies evaded them. But now, as Gary Neville rightly pointed out in his rant during Sunday’s Carabao Cup final, they cannot say their style is more attractive than Liverpool or Manchester City.
“I don’t even like the football anymore. The last bastion has gone,” Neville said.
For now Wenger has not officially gone, but it does finally feel as though the end could be near. During his defence yesterday, the Frenchman stressed how he had rejected big clubs to stay at Arsenal in the past.
“I am here for 21 years, I turned the whole world down to respect my contracts,” he said.
However, all of that was in the past and now it is time for Wenger to summon some evidence he can still be Arsenal’s future.
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