Heart Of Football

It's gone pear-shaped at Arsenal with no end in sight

The banners are out, and for the first time in 21 years, not even Arsene Wenger seems to have any degree of certainty about what happens next, for him or for his beloved Arsenal.

"There is an all-or-nothing feel to Sunday's game," predicted Martin Keown. "Now is the time for Arsenal players to stand up and be counted. And I am expecting a superhuman effort from them, and Arsenal to beat (Manchester) City 2-1."

Keown is a Wenger man to his boots.

He was a player - a warrior - in the Gunners defence in the 2003 to 2004 side known as "The Invincibles".

The last team to go an entire season undefeated.

The last time Arsenal won the Premier League.

Chile forward Alexis Sanchez has come out claiming that he is happy in London but it remains to be seen if that London club is Arsenal, with his contract entering its final 12 months come end of the season.
Chile forward Alexis Sanchez has come out claiming that he is happy in London but it remains to be seen if that London club is Arsenal, with his contract entering its final 12 months come end of the season. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

They (Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil) want huge salary increases or else they want out. Barcelona would love to fix their right-back hole with Hector Bellerin.

All or nothing, regardless of Wenger's future, refers to something less grand. Arsenal versus Man City represents the former's fading hopes of getting back into a position to at least qualify for the Champions League, which Wenger's Arsenal has done for the past 19 seasons.

Those who listened carefully to him on Thursday, and who were hoping for the news of his exit, heard him say:

"Not today. You are trying to force me to tell you something I don't want to answer.

"I'm very clear in my mind that, do I stay two months or two years, my commitment will be just the same."

And then, the important, largely ignored qualification:

"It is not completely sorted out."

That, to me, tells us that for the first time in his marriage to Arsenal, he is not the master of all he surveys. He might be waiting to see if his players, some of them appallingly underachieving in the past two months, come to their senses and play to their capabilities.

The disappearing Mesut Ozil and the disillusioned Alexis Sanchez figure large in that.

They are the two "world" stars that Wenger loosened the Arsenal purse strings enough to go big and buy. They want huge salary increases or else they want out.

Ozil has always been a puzzle; a sublimely-gifted individual wrapped up in an enigma that suggests indifference.

Sanchez, the Chilean Tiger, has been running on fumes for Arsenal and made things happen when others couldn't find the will. But his face after the 5-1 first-leg thrashing by Bayern Munich in Germany on Feb 15 displayed utter despair.

His belief in Arsenal was gone in that moment. Whatever he meant by telling a Chilean journalist last week that he loves and doesn't want to leave London, but wants to play for a winning team, is open to interpretation.

Wenger smirked and said that he regards that as a positive "because there is only one team in London".

He knows, the urbane Professor Wenger, that there are two London clubs above him, champions-elect Chelsea and, from an Arsenal point of view, the noisy neighbours, Tottenham Hotspur.

Spurs won't be meeting the wage demands of Sanchez. Chelsea could, given the chance to both weaken an opponent and enhance their own team.

If there is a way out for Sanchez, who, remember is at Arsenal because Barcelona didn't want him, Arsenal's preference would be to sell him as far from London as possible. Paris Saint-Germain would pay whatever it takes, and they certainly could do with a tiger after their own collapse in Europe.

The whisperers also have it that Barcelona, would love to fix their right-back hole with Hector Bellerin, whom Wenger "stole" from their academy.

So that makes three players, the best three, whose Arsenal careers might be up for negotiation.

What we don't know is whether Wenger is any longer omnipotent at the Emirates. "Wenger In, Wenger Out" banner trails in the sky are supported by scores of banners on the ground, most of them held up by Gooners not old enough to be sons of the manager who made history for their club.

The Arsenal Supporters Trust, imagining they have power and influence, say their poll shows 78 per cent of members want the board to withdraw the contract that is on the table for the Frenchman to stay.

It might be as effective as punching an empty coat.

Who on Arsenal's board might listen? Who, apart from "Silent" Stan Kroenke, the chief shareholder who hides away in the United States, might actually have the power or the courage to confront Wenger?

With all this noise in the background, with Arsenal looking a pale imitation after losing six of their last nine games in all competitions, what does the manager who built so much of the club say?

"I am still convinced about the strength of character of this squad," Wenger concluded his pre-match press conference ahead of today's game. "And it's a good moment to show it."

He was asked one more time will he be around to rebuild what needs rebuilding? "I'm planning for next season," he responded. "But if I stay two months or 10 years, I plan.

"I do my job exactly the same. Players will ask will you be here, but we are always honest: Arsenal are a world brand today, and the Arsenal name is bigger than my name. You don't come to Arsene Wenger, you come to Arsenal."

There is speculation that the manager is holding back his decision until the outcome of the FA Cup semi-final on April 23.

The opponent in that contest just happens to be Manchester City, the same opponent this evening.

Pep Guardiola is a committed Wenger admirer and, like many of us, cannot quite believe the messy way that Wenger's 21st season in London is panning out. Guardiola says nice, respectful things but in football, you live by the sword.

City beat Arsenal 2-1 in Manchester in December, and their aim now is to hit the Gunners while they are down, and try to complete the league double over them for the first time in 41 years.

Which, of course, is pre-Wenger.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 02, 2017, with the headline 'It's gone pear-shaped at Arsenal with no end in sight'. Print Edition | Subscribe