Returning to London after Champions League elimination at Barcelona’s hands, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger faces more uncomfortable questions than ever before about his stewardship of the club.
A season that was still full of hope at the turn of the year is now unravelling in all-too-familiar fashion, with Arsenal out of Europe, out of both cup competitions and trailing Premier League leaders Leicester City by 11 points, albeit with a game in hand.
They remain on course for a top-four finish, but Champions League qualification is losing its consolatory effect on the club’s fans, many of whom have come to see it as a sign of the culture of mid-level achievement that Wenger has allowed to take root at the Emirates Stadium.
“I think the natives have turned. There’s more people who want the boss out than want him in,” former Arsenal striker Ian Wright said on BT Sport after Arsenal’s 3-1 loss to Barcelona on Wednesday, which completed a 5-1 aggregate defeat.
“I’m not sure if he still will be there in the summer, if they don’t win the league.”
With Chelsea floundering, Manchester City fatally inconsistent and both Liverpool and Manchester United in transition, this season had held the promise of a first league title for Arsenal since 2004.
Instead they have failed to grasp the nettle, with outsiders Leicester and — worse — arch rivals Tottenham Hotspur surging past them to fight out the most improbable English title duel in recent memory.
“This was the perfect year for Arsenal to win the Premier League and they’ve missed it,” said Emmanuel Petit, another former Wenger protege.
FA Cup wins in 2014 and 2015 ended Arsenal’s nine-year silverware drought and indicated that the club was reacquiring the trophy-winning know-how that characterised the first eight years of Wenger’s tenure, which yielded three Premier League titles and four FA Cups.
The signings of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez also hinted at a new dawn, but Arsenal remain bedevilled by the same frailties: recurrent injuries, exacerbated by unaddressed weaknesses in key areas of the squad, tactical naivety and, crucially, a bewildering lack of backbone.
“Time to say goodbye”
The achievements of Wenger’s 20-year tenure — notably the successful move to the Emirates and the establishment of Arsenal as a global brand — have earned the 66-year-old Frenchman iconic status at the club.
He is thought to retain the full support of American majority shareholder Stan Kroenke and there is no suggestion that he is in danger of the sack.
Kroenke even suggested last week that he is not interested in winning the title, telling a conference in Boston: “If you want to win championships then you would never get involved.”
Fan discontent is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, however, and reports this week suggested that it could prompt Wenger to walk away from his post before his contract expires next year.
Celebrity fan Piers Morgan, the newspaper editor turned chat-show host, continues to fire up the #WengerOUT campaign on social media, while a banner held aloft during the recent FA Cup win at Hull City read: “ARSENE, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, BUT IT’S TIME TO SAY GOODBYE.”
The banner was condemned by Arsenal players past and present — as well as David Beckham — but it illustrated the deep discontent felt by certain fans, as glimpsed in the scuffles that broke out outside the Emirates following Sunday’s 2-1 FA Cup quarter-final defeat by Watford.
Arsenal are on course to qualify for the Champions League for the 20th season running, but after six successive last-16 exits they have become the competition’s perennial wallflowers — always at the party, but never on the dance-floor.
More damning still, they are now a byword for tolerated underachievement.
Commenting on Manchester United’s own recent struggles, the club’s former midfielder Paul Scholes said: “The last thing I want to see is United being happy with finishing fourth and winning the FA Cup.
“Arsenal do that.”