Despite spending 20 years in charge of Arsenal, there has often been a measure of uncertainty around Arsene Wenger’s contract situation. For all the stability he’s brought, there have been times when renewing has gone down to the wire.
The lure of Europe’s biggest clubs was always a threat during the first 10 years of his Arsenal career, but having committed to the new Emirates stadium project, the Frenchman signed an extension in 2007 to bring him to 2011.
In 2010 he signed an extension to 2014, and those four years were ones in which frustration with Wenger grew. Financially hamstrung and unable to challenge properly for the title, Arsenal struggled — in relative terms — to match the achievements of previous years. Over that period of time, some fans’ desire to see a new manager became strong.
However, 2014 proved to be a watershed moment. The financial restrictions were coming to an end, new sponsorship and kit deals could be negotiated to boost the coffers and increase spending on the team, but after so many years without a trophy frustration was high. At the time it was widely reported there was an agreement between the club and the manager to renew, but the small matter of the FA Cup cast a shadow over proceedings.
Facing Wigan in a semifinal at Wembley, Arsenal were just eight minutes from crashing out of the competition in embarrassing fashion. Had Per Mertesacker not scored a late goal to take the game to extra-time, Wenger’s position at the club may have become untenable. The tide of public opinion would have made any extension almost impossible.
As it turned out, Arsenal won the penalty shootout and then went on to win the cup 3-2 against Hull. Fans got a trophy they craved and the feelgood factor of that enabled the latest contract extension, which runs until the end of the current season. That cup win, and the one the following year in 2015, should have been the platform to win the Premier League last season, but once more Arsenal crumbled, allowing Leicester’s fairytale title win.
All that frustration came flooding back and there remain swathes of fans who want a new manager when Wenger’s current deal expires. Yet there can be little doubt Wenger wants to stay. Stories linking him with the England job are great for the rumour mill, but in reality a football addict like the Frenchman would barely survive on the meagre portions international football dishes up.
Similarly, the Arsenal board remain in thrall to him. Owner Stan Kroenke is huge supporter, and even the other shareholder, Alisher Usmanov — who some might see as a saviour — has always expressed his support for Wenger. That there’s little in the way of football expertise on the Arsenal board (bar Ivan Gazidis, who has been around the game for some time and is a consummate politician) means the easiest decision to be made is to extend Wenger’s reign once more.
However, both the manager and the club know there’s a need to marry a new contract with success, or at least tangible progress. Even if Arsenal fans have become somewhat inured to the fact they play Champions League football every season — something most other clubs would be delighted with — there’s a tedium to European football that going out at the round of 16 every year for the last six years brings.
For all the frustration of last season, Arsenal finished second, their highest finish since 2005. But in the storm of dismay and frustration that came from not taking a great chance to win the Premier League, finishing runners-up was of little comfort to many who saw it as the manager and club falling short again.
Arsenal are smart and so is Wenger. They know there’s a right time and wrong time to announce a new deal. It’s not now, even if the current form is very good. It will have to go to the wire again, most likely, and therein lies the risk for the club. If they fall short, or underperform, it might well echo 2014 when failure could have cost him his job.