It was supposed to be about results. At least, Arsene Wenger always insisted it was. But if the Arsenal manager signs a new contract extension at this point, he will have to admit that this season-long saga of speculation and hesitation has been one long unnecessary drama.
Ever since last August, the Arsenal boss has claimed his future at the club depended on how well the team did on the pitch this season. It was as if he was giving himself an ultimatum: Deliver the performances and trophies that will prove you’re still the right man for the job, or give way to someone else.
Now, the latest message from the Frenchman — who looks increasingly likely to sign on for another two years — is that not even missing out on Champions League qualification (which would make this the worst season of his 21-year reign) would be a reason for him to step down.
In other words, both Wenger and the board seem more than happy to continue down the same path no matter what happens between now and the end of the season.
If that’s the way both parties feel, then fair enough. But it begs the question: What has been the point of this drawn-out uncertainty that has been so damaging to Arsenal’s season?
There can’t be any doubt that it has contributed to the team’s many problems on and off the pitch. The players seem weighed down by the burden of playing for their legendary manager’s future. Mesut Ozil has admitted it’s one of the reasons he hasn’t signed a new contract. And the split feelings about the Frenchman among the fan base has only led to increased divisions at the Emirates, where fans who see a real possibility of change now stage a protest march before every game.
Wenger has made himself a distraction by waiting this long to make up his mind, and now it appears there was no good reason for the wait — aside from the hope that the mood among fans would eventually swing around in his favour.
If results were the decisive factor, the last six weeks should have raised serious doubts even in Wenger’s own mind about whether he’s still Arsenal’s best hope for long-term success. Instead he seems more determined than ever to stay on. And at a time when fans seem more opposed to the idea than ever.
This could all have been avoided had Wenger signed a new deal last summer, which the board and majority owner Stan Kroenke would probably have been more than happy to offer. That would have led to a fair amount of grumbling from fans after the team’s failure to beat Leicester to the Premier League title, but probably significantly less so than such an announcement would have at this point. They could also have used the positive vibes created by the 3-0 win over Chelsea in September after a record summer spending spree to announce a new deal then, which would have settled the issue and possibly made negotiations with Ozil and Alexis Sanchez easier.
Wenger’s desire to stay on as manager has never been in question. Neither has the club’s desire to keep him in charge.
Waiting only made sense if Wenger was actually on the fence and needed confirmation that his methods were still working, the team was making progress and trophies were on the horizon. The last two months have shown beyond a doubt that’s not the case. Despite his record outlay on new recruits, Wenger is staring at the very real possibility of finishing without a trophy and outside the top four of the Premier League (behind Tottenham) for the first time in his career.
Add the fact that Ozil and Sanchez could both leave in the summer, and Arsenal only seem to have gone backwards since Wenger penned his current deal in 2014.
Of course, he could still turn things around and finish the season the same way he did three years ago when his last contract was expiring — by lifting the FA Cup after securing yet another Champions League spot. That could certainly justify a new deal, even though the “Wenger out” supporters would still grumble.
Many would still argue that Wenger’s past success and his 21 years of service to the club means he deserves another chance to set things right regardless of this season’s disappointments. But it would be a lot easier to justify without the initial claim that the decision would be based on results.
Mattias is ESPN FC’s Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.