Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said his future would probably be decided “in March or April” as he pondered whether to take up the offer of a contract extension or leave the club he has managed for 20 years at the end of the season.
The Frenchman was speaking to German TV station ZDF before Arsenal’s 1-5 UEFA Champions League humiliation by Bayern Munich on Wednesday, but details of the interview emerged only yesterday as speculation intensified about Wenger’s intention.
Asked when he would decide whether to continue next season, he said: “March, April probably.” Separately, the BBC reported, without sources, that his future would be determined at the end of the season, when his existing deal expires.
Wenger, 67, was stunned almost into silence after the game, answering just three questions at a press conference that lasted under three minutes.
Wenger is due to speak publicly again today, by which time he will have had time not only to digest the 1-5 defeat but also the hostile reaction from pundits and former Arsenal players who lined up to predict his demise when his contract expires this summer.
Such is Wenger’s standing at the club, over which he has presided for 20 years, he will effectively decide his own fate.
A new deal has been offered but Arsenal legends Lee Dixon, Ian Wright and Bob Wilson all felt Wenger might decide to walk away. “I doubt he will sleep very much between now and a horrible (FA Cup) game on an artificial pitch at Sutton on Monday night,” said Wilson. “He might say enough is enough.”
Critics were quick to point out that Wenger’s explanation for the Munich mauling — that his players were “jaded and lacking organization” — reflected his own managerial shortcomings, and almost mirrored his remarks the last time his side was thumped, also 1-5, by the same opponent 18 months earlier.
The only support seemed to come from Bayern boss Carlo Ancelotti. “This is football,” he said. “I think Arsene has a lot of experience, the experience to manage this moment, this result and look forward to the next game. It’s only one game.”
The trouble is, it isn’t.
Six successive eliminations at the same stage of the knockout phase do not suggest coincidence and a tactically disjointed Arsenal side was well beaten by an opponent below its best.
Arsenal’s two biggest stars Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, underperformed in wildly contrasting fashion and did little to suggest either is worth the enhanced new deals they seek.
While German Ozil was anonymous, confirming the critical view that he goes missing in the big games, Chile’s Sanchez got visibly agitated in chasing the ball, often on his own.
Wenger’s next challenge could not be more different — an FA Cup tie next Monday on a 3G pitch at non-league Sutton United. Once again, the cameras will be there to track his every move on TV, with acres of newsprint likely to be devoted to whether the clock is really ticking on his 20 years at the club.
There is, of course, no right way for a long-standing manager to quit. Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest was relegated in his last season, when his battle with alcoholism became increasingly obvious. He was 58 but never managed again.
A better template was offered by Sir Alex Ferguson, who retracted his first retirement announcement in 2001 before eventually leaving Manchester United at 71 after winning the title for the 13th time, in 2013.
But with Arsenal 10 points behind leader Chelsea, and with a tricky game at Liverpool next up, Wenger knows a fourth title on his watch is unlikely.
So, with no side ever coming back from such a first-leg Champions League deficit, the best he can probably hope for is a top-four finish and an FA Cup win, precisely the same as Arsenal managed in 2014 and 2015.
Whether the fans will view that as progress is to be seen.