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24 May 2024, Edition - 3237, Friday

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‘We need more help’ – how Arsenal players feel about Wenger situation



The speech was delivered by one of the senior players in the Arsenal dressing room but he did not finish it. He was too choked up as he reflected on how such a talented squad had come to resemble a bunch of drifters. He said his children were asking him why Arsenal were so bad. That was the moment when the tears welled in his eyes.

Another Arsenal player stepped in. “We are a big club,” he said, tapping into the rallying cry theme. “But we need more help from the coaches.” That was when the damning judgment was articulated. It had actually been the motivation for the players to gather in the first place – without Arsène Wenger. “It’s not going to happen,” one of them said. “We need to find the answers ourselves.”

It was Tuesday of this week – the day of the first training session after Sunday’s Carabao Cup final humbling against Manchester City. The meeting of the players at London Colney was not aggressive in its tone, even if there were frank exchanges. It was more plaintive; coloured by soul-searching and a certain helplessness. It shone a glaring light on why Wenger’s time as the manager is up.

It is too easy in times of crisis to say the lavishly rewarded modern footballer does not care. The Arsenal squad do care; they beat themselves up over how they have slipped from Champions League to Europa League level. It embarrasses them that the fans have been so unhappy with so many of their performances. This is their livelihood. They have professional pride.

Wenger has always said he will step aside when he feels he can no longer draw the maximum from his players. Right now, he cannot get through to them at all and the frustration on all sides is overwhelming. It is causing the club to implode.

The weird thing about Thursday night’s Premier League fixture against City was that Arsenal played well during the first half. And yet they trailed 3-0 by the end of it and only a Petr Cech block from Sergio Agüero on 40 minutes stopped it from being worse. At that point only the hardest of hearts could feel no sympathy.

Arsenal’s heads did not go down after the first City goal – despite Wenger’s dire pre-match warning that in 85% of the big games the team that broke the deadlock came out on top. But things turned sharply upon the second and third goals. There were boos from the home support when the half-time whistle went, a chorus of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” from a small section and, also, something new and darker – the team were booed out for the second half.

It was excruciating to see how City sliced through Arsenal on the counterattack, although it was not entirely surprising given the lack of defensive midfield balance in Wenger’s lineup. Arsenal gamely tried to play forward; City simply picked them off.

The no-shows had felt telling; the Emirates Stadium was only half-full. Never mind the horrible weather – this was one of the prestige matches of the season. The official attendance was given as 58,420 based on tickets sold, which drew the usual derision. Only at Arsenal can people get angry at something like that.

But this is the climate, one of volatility and extreme emotion, and Wenger remains the lightning rod. Whether he limps on into next season or is gently ushered off the premises is the all-consuming issue (again) and it is difficult to see how it cannot affect performances. Wenger admitted the uncertainty over his future had done so last season.

The City manager, Pep Guardiola, was asked on Thursday night whether he felt any sympathy towards Wenger and he talked generously about how he could “understand the situation”. Guardiola accepted it could happen to him or any of his peers, even if this rather overlooked the sheer scale of the Wenger Out saga. But a throwaway line stood out. “I’m sure he’s going to take the right decision, for the club, for him, for the players, for everybody,” Guardiola said.

As far as Wenger is concerned there is no decision to take. He intends to remain in charge for next season and honour the final one on his contract. To hear Guardiola buy into the narrative and, essentially, validate it was revealing. Perhaps Guardiola has a little inside information. His coach, Mikel Arteta – the former Arsenal captain – has been touted as a potential successor to Wenger.

There were mitigating factors for Arsenal’s second 3-0 loss to City in the space of five days; namely that it was City. They have greater resources and better players. But it still felt like a damaging setback; a point of no return. Even Wenger’s patented knack of bouncing back from a bad defeat had deserted him.

On the other hand, we have been here before – most recently at Crystal Palace last April. After the 3-0 defeat that night, the notion of Wenger continuing for another season felt outlandish. He somehow stabilised and ended up winning the FA Cup. This time out he has his sights on the Europa League.

Wenger talked the fighting talk before Sunday’s trip to Brighton & Hove Albion, albeit in a weary way, and he admitted that his players’ confidence levels were low. He looked shot to pieces although, as ever, he trooped through his various media obligations with stoicism and dignity. Nobody likes to see this gentleman under such fire. More than anything, the situation is sad.

The club have adopted a siege mentality in which they refuse to look beyond the next game. But Wenger’s judgment day is drawing nearer. Stan Kroenke, the majority shareholder, had one target for the season – to reboard the Champions League gravy train. It has come to look further away.

Would Kroenke pull the trigger on Wenger? It would be a surprise if he did not.

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