It is easy to criticise Arsene Wenger, especially at the end of a league season where they finished in fifth place, their worst position since 1995-96, back when Bruce Rioch was manager and the club was still recovering from the trauma of sacking George Graham.
Arsenal Football Club is clearly not in a happy state right now either. The fans have spent much of this season singing against Wenger and on Sunday they turned their attention to Stan Kroenke. The American majority share-holder turned down Alisher Usmanov’s £1billion offer to buy him out but Arsenal fans made very clear that they would rather he had taken it. It was as toxic an atmosphere as it has been all season.
So it was impressive and surprising that Wenger’s reaction on Sunday evening, in his post-match press conference, was to take all the blame on his own shoulders. By admitting that his season of silence over his own future had damaged the club, contributing to the uncertainty, discord and “absolutely horrendous” psychological atmosphere, Wenger was holding his hands up like never before.
It was an act of genuine selflessness because it would have been easier for Wenger to deflect the blame away. Some of his players have underperformed this season, and his two stars, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, have looked distracted by talk of big-money summer departures and their expiring contracts. There has not been much constructive public support from the Arsenal board, as quiet as ever but for a statement from Sir Chips Keswick in early March that said as little as it possibly could.
On top of all that there has been the internal wrangling with the club over what the new set-up will look like if Wenger does, indeed, sign a new contract. Will they have a director of football or not? Will Wenger get the final say over transfers or are those days over?
Wenger even hinted at these complex politics when he said that not everything that had gone wrong at Arsenal was for reasons that are publicly known. “Some [reasons], obviously that you know about, and that is very difficult for the group of players to cope with that,” he said. “Some other reasons where we will talk about another day.”
So there is more than enough blame to go round, from Kroenke and Wenger all the way down to the players. There is a very strong case that Wenger’s time is up now and Arsenal would be better off with another manager.
But there is still a real dignity about Wenger, not least in his willingness to be a lightning rod for the frustrations of the fans. By being so present and so responsible at Arsenal, he takes plenty of the flak that would otherwise be directed at Kroenke and the board. He even offered Kroenke his public support, which he did not need to do, absolving him of blame for the club’s struggles.
“I think you respect everybody in life,” Wenger said. “I respect Stan Kroenke a lot. He is not at fault if we did not reach the Champions League tonight. It is the technical department who is responsible for that. I don’t see what he has to do with that.”
Plenty of managers would have relished the opportunity to turn up the heat on their unpopular owners but Wenger went further in support than he needed to. There has been plenty of criticism for ‘Silent Stan’ but Wenger even made Kroenke’s silence a virtue and said that more people could learn from it.
“We live in a society where today everybody has an opinion,” said Wenger, summing up how he may well feel about the fans. “People don’t stop talking. They do little and they talk a lot. But that doesn’t move society forward, what moves society forward is people who work, really, and talk not too much.”
Wenger has not done much talking about his future this season but on Sunday night he did plenty. He was more honest than anyone could have expected and it almost felt like an apology for a season of drift that has damaged the team. Even if he might feel himself like the blame could be better spread around.
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