Arsene Wenger’s future is, it seems, in the balance. His current contract with Arsenal expires at the end of the season. As of yet, there is no real clarity as to whether or not he will continue into the 2014/15 campaign. Arsenal’s success in the FA Cup, or otherwise, will surely play a huge role in deciding his fate.
The indication from Wenger is that he will make a decision based on a personal assessment of his success in the current campaign. What remains a mystery is how he will choose to weigh up that success. Would a failure to win the FA Cup leave Wenger in a position where he feels obligated to relinquish his post?
For some time now, silverware has not been the measure by which Wenger judges his own performance. He places far greater significance upon the league table, which he believes to be the true gauge of a side’s quality.
On that front, Arsenal have been remarkably consistent. Under Wenger’s stewardship, the side reached the group stage of the Champions League every year for almost two decades.
A top-four finish is absolutely a priority for Wenger.
Speaking to The Telegraph in February 2012, after a particularly ignominious cup exit, Wenger asserted:
"Our main target now is to focus on the championship. People are always asking the same question, but the first trophy is to finish in the top four. That is vital for us."
The Champions League means an enormous amount to Wenger. As a trained economist, he recognises the undoubted financial boon that comes with competing in Europe’s elite competition. What’s more, it’s also the trophy most obviously missing from his CV. The 2006 final defeat to Barcelona still rankles with the Frenchman.
Until he lifts Europe’s greatest club prize, he won’t be fully satisfied.
However, the fans don’t quite share all of Wenger’s sentiments. Some pockets of the Arsenal support wonder aloud whether or not Arsenal need to continue to make the top four. There is already plenty of money in the bank.
This season, Liverpool have thrived in part because of a lack of European action. It can be a distraction as well as a delight.
Ultimately, it’s a trophy that Arsenal fans crave most. They have waited with a degree of patience since 2005. However, that patience is wearing increasingly thin.
Not winning the FA Cup now would be something of a disaster. Of the four teams remaining in the competition, Arsenal are undoubtedly the strongest.
Arsenal’s semi-final opponents, Wigan, may be the holders, but they’re playing in the Championship. On the other side of the draw, Sheffield United come from a division below even that.
The strongest rivals to lift the cup are Steve Bruce’s Hull, however, their star strike partnership of Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long would be forced to miss any potential final due to being cup-tied. Arsenal, with their superior resources and squad depth, will struggle to find excuses if they come up short.
Wenger is urging caution.
Speaking to Nicholas Veevers of TheFA.com, he said:
Mathematically, I cannot deny that is true [being two games from winning The FA Cup], it’s a Semi-Final. Tactically, it’s a bit more difficult than that so let’s see who we have to play in the Semi-Final and do it again.
His desire to play down expectations is understandable, but Arsenal fans are already excited by the prospect of ending a nine-year wait for silverware.
Failure looks improbable, yet Arsenal have managed it before.
In 2011, they were in a similarly strong position in the League Cup. Eventually, they found themselves in a final against lowly Birmingham City, which were relegated from the Premier League in the same season. They lost. That wretched day is still etched into the collective memory of Arsenal fans.
They dread a reprise.
If Arsenal fail to win the FA Cup, Wenger will be held accountable. The suggestion has always been that he will have final say over his future, however, should the Gunners lose either of their two potential Wembley dates, the decision may be taken out of his hands.
The disappointment among an expectant Arsenal fanbase would swiftly bubble into anger. Wenger could be forced to stand down amid the antipathy, and a great manager’s reign would end on a sombre note.