Mentally very jaded? Not Arsène Wenger, apparently. The manager did his utmost to suggest that his description of his players’ mindset during their collapse at Bayern Munich did not apply to him, as he emphatically declared that he intends to continue managing – although not necessarily at Arsenal.
That caveat is, of course, deeply significant. The thing is, no one other than Wenger can be certain of what it means. It was the first time that the Frenchman has openly entertained the notion of leaving the club that has become his kingdom over the last 20 years.
So perhaps a degree of weariness has, in fact, taken hold of him? Or maybe he is coming to grips with the realization that staying on his throne beyond this season would risk escalating the revolt of supporters who once viewed him universally as the most benign and enlightened of dictators but now see him as an obsolete ruler who needs to abdicate or be ousted.
On the other hand, maybe mentioning the possibility of coaching elsewhere was intended to jolt fans who have been complaining about being sick and tired of Wenger.
“Arsène Knows” used to be said with triumphant reverence by Arsenal fans but now the fact that he works in mysterious ways grates on the increasing number who see him as a fallen idol. Having said that, although his end-game remained murky, his immediate intention could not have been clearer: 36 hours after his latest humiliation in Munich, Wenger strode forth with the objective of proving that, for now at least, he remains a leader full of cheer and fight.
He was no longer the haggard figure who appeared on screen after Wednesday’s ordeal in Germany, when an agonizing Martin Keown, perhaps his most reluctant critic, suggested that the manager had reached “his lowest point”. Back then Wenger looked so haunted by the realization that his life’s work is unlikely to end as he wished, that people who know the 67-year-old well detected an unprecedented inclination to limit damage to his legacy by slipping gently into retirement. But now Wenger sought to chase away that notion with hearty vim. “No matter what happens I will manage next season, whether here or somewhere else,” he said, a man seeming neither jaded nor broken.
He was upbeat and defiant and he talked about upholding team spirit and his values; he was a leader keeping his head while all around him are losing theirs; a Frenchman showing English folk how to maintain a stiff upper lip. It was a consummate performance that nearly made one forget the traumatized figure from the Munich disaster or the fuming oaf who shoved a fourth official at the Emirates only a month ago while giving vent to almost King Lear-esque rage.
But, of course, as he sought to calm choppy waters he left one big doubt lingering. For how long will he keep all this up? He said he would not decide whether to accept Arsenal’s offer of a new two-year contract until March or April. “My personal situation is not important,” he said like a selfless club servant with concern only for the greater good.
On one level that was exasperatingly disingenuous: how could his personal situation not be important to the club when over the last two decades the club and his personal situation have been bound to each other almost like the pope and the Vatican, or Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory?
Given that, is delaying an answer until near the end of the season not the very opposite of selfless? If he intends to leave, surely the most gallant thing to do would be to trigger a kind of Article 50 as early as possible to allow the club to prepare for the momentous change ahead and ensure as successful a post-Wexit Arsenal as possible? Stringing the club along would be the sort of toying an incorrigible tyrant might enjoy.
Alternatively, it could be that Wenger, seemingly a control freak who issues decrees on everything from the menu in Arsenal’s canteen to the number of years Theo Walcott will be given to reach his potential, has decided to delegate authority for making the biggest decision in the club’s recent history.
He intimated that the question of whether he stays or leaves could be answered by the way his team ends the season. That would mean placing his fate in the hands of his players – the players he has been accused of mollycoddling to the point that they cannot think under pressure, the selfie-stars of a dressing room that critics say he has all but cleared of strong characters in order to consolidate his power. Will they – can they? – finally summon the fortitude to show through their performances that the manager who keeps sending them out to play the one true way is not a hopeless case?
It is hard to know quite what, to Wenger, would constitute a compelling argument to stay at this point: would being on course to win the FA Cup and secure a top-four spot suffice again? Or would it take something truly extraordinary this time, such as overturning the first-leg deficit against Bayern or surging past Chelsea at the top of the Premier League?
“Even if I go, Arsenal will not win every single game in the future, we have to accept that,” he said. “If you look at the history of Arsenal, the club had less Champions League games in its history than I had in my career before I came. It’s not like before I arrived Arsenal had won the European Cup five times. They had played maybe 10 games in the whole history.
“So you have to put things into perspective. In the last 20 years only three clubs have played every season in Europe: Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. That means that although everything is not perfect, not all is wrong.”
Why the history lesson? Might it have been a warning to the Wenger Out brigade to be careful what they wish for? Probably it was simply a reminder that, irrespective of what fans want him to do now, Wenger and his future deserve to be debated with respect.