Arsene Wenger is as divisive a character as there is in the Premier League. He splits opinion as cleanly as Ernest Rutherford did the atom in 1917. Those in a dwindling number who still see him as a deity would balk at the accusation he is delusional, but even the man himself may concede he allows blind optimism to pervade his thinking at times.
Any manager that didn't would likely spend as much time on a psychiatrist's couch as in the dugout.
That is why after Saturday's 3-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion, the focus should not be on whether Wenger will sign a new contract at Arsenal, but why he hasn't already. The Frenchman has made no secret of the fact he wants to stay at Arsenal. There is a contract extension on the table. It remains unsigned.
Bleacher Report UK @br_uk
It happened. ✈ https://t.co/6sHgCnteN22017-3-18 12:33:52
Given since the turn of the year, Arsenal have been indolent to the point of being offensive, Wenger should have inked his name in his own blood to demonstrate to doubters he would still bleed for the cause. Instead a story with no end date lingers. It's football's Article 50; "Wexit" is no closer to being resolved.
Tangible facts are no longer heard over white noise. Monologues on a loop fired between warring fractions of supporters, and now planes, have superseded the fact a call has been made already.
Amid the perpetual hysteria over his suitability to take Arsenal forward, it seems to have been forgotten this is a two-way decision. Between him and the club. Arsenal's board has long since played their hand.
They want Wenger to stay.
Or at least they did when they put a two-year contract extension in front of him. There has been no suggestion the offer has been retracted, though the Daily Express reported on Sunday that Wenger will sign a one-year deal.
In Saturday's post-match press conference, Wenger confirmed he had made up his mind. "I know what I will do in the future," he revealed, cue the pricking up of ears among all those present, before seemingly realising he had said too much almost before the words had left his mouth. He added (via The Independent): "You will know soon enough, but right now we are in a unique bad patch and that is more important to me than my future."
Guardian sport @guardian_sport
Wenger says ‘you will soon know’ of decision on his Arsenal future https://t.co/LxF1MbYZrl https://t.co/JuO75x7QaZ2017-3-18 18:57:53
Wenger the tease, exiting stage left for the international break having instigated the biggest cliffhanger since The Italian Job ended with a Mini filled with gold balancing precariously on a cliff edge.
"Hang on a minute, lads," says Michael Caine's ringleader in the film's final line. "I've got a great idea." Just like Wenger, Charlie Croker was a glass half-full man. Perhaps his great idea was ditching zonal marking.
Lee Dixon @LeeDixon2
Zonal marking means if the ball is in your zone you attack it and make it yours above anyone else. Simple and effective system if done right2017-3-18 12:57:04
Lee Dixon @LeeDixon2
Ok I give up!2017-3-18 14:12:04
On paper, a one-year extension could be seen as a reasonable compromise for all parties. The Daily Mail has mentioned Thomas Tuchel and Massimiliano Allegri as possible successors to Wenger. The appointment of either would likely be well received by the majority. Prolonged negotiations would be required.
But with the club presumably planning for next season, at the very least, with Wenger still at the helm should he leave in May, it would put them in a real bind. Replacing Wenger would be no less of a job for Arsenal than when Manchester United had to do likewise with Sir Alex Ferguson. Three managers and around half a billion spent on new players later, United are three points better off than Arsenal. It won't have gone unspoken of in the Arsenal boardroom.
An extra 12 months of Wenger would allow them to select his successor and potentially a director of football in a new role on the back of the likely departure of chief transfer negotiator Dick Law and within a time frame more befitting of the biggest decision the club will make since appointing him back in 1996. Replacing Wenger with whoever is available over the summer would be like the Sistine Chapel being flooded and getting local school kids to do any restoration work—in crayon.
Over the close season, huge calls will need to be made on the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, among others. Being managerless for any period would potentially be nothing short of catastrophic.
On the flip side, it's Arsenal becoming a club of compromise in the first place that has led to such disenchantment among supporters. Wenger being given another season to make right what is looking like an undistinguished end to the most decorated of careers is a noble but ultimately soft option. Which is, of course, all very Arsenal.
Arsenal supporters will look at what Antonio Conte has achieved in his first season at Chelsea and justifiably ask why a new coach providing fresh impetus, replete with keys to the most famous cash reserve in football, couldn't do something similar. Arsenal under Wenger have never stooped to the levels Chelsea did under Jose Mourinho in the first part of last season before his sacking, but then neither have they hit the peaks that have seen their west London rivals win the Premier League four times (three times under Mourinho) since their last title success in 2003/04.
In 2011 the club's chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, said (via the Telegraph): "Arsene is ultimately accountable to the fans; they are the ones who ultimately make the judgment."
Given the main story over the weekend concerned two sets of Arsenal fans chartering planes to fly over the Hawthorns to offer contrasting views of Wenger's tenure, it would be a little gauche to complain of paying customers being made to sit in the corner while only being permitted to speak when spoken to.
Still, even in these nauseatingly gentrified times when a pie and a pint is not enough for those who want a plane, Gazidis' rhetoric is that of a politician. In any chain of command at a football club, the idea that anyone answers to supporters is about as quaint as a bone china tea set on Antiques Roadshow. Wenger answers to Gazidis, who answers to owner Stan Kroenke.
At 67, Wenger remains in love with both the game and Arsenal. Indeed such is his joie de vivre that he has already suggested that even if this season proves to be his last at the Emirates, he will take another job elsewhere. Another four more years of fiddling with that bloody zip has been earmarked.
Which is why a year-long extension seems odd. If his words can be taken at face value and he really would consider carrying on for another four years, why would he accept staying on at Arsenal for just another 12 months? A bridging period would be invaluable from the club's perspective, but for Wenger surely it would be little more than keeping the seat warm for someone else while his own fire still burns bright. Marriages of convenience rarely work any better in football than they do in real life.
There's nothing in his transfer dealings over the past few summers to suggest Wenger has either the aptitude or appetite to make the significant changes Arsenal clearly need to make in a single close season to be ready for a serious title tilt.
After finishing the 1994-95 season empty-handed, Ferguson sold Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis and promoted the Class of '92 en masse. The following campaign Manchester United won the Premier League title, and it kick-started the most glorious period in the club's history.
Had Wenger been Manchester United manager, the aforementioned trio would probably still be regularly making the substitutes' bench. He used to possess a ruthless streak in knowing exactly when to sell—as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars would all attest, having never reached the same heights after being sold by Wenger—but when was the last time he acted with such cold-blooded decisiveness?
Regardless of whether long-term Wenger's race in north London is done or even whether he deserves to have a say in his future or not, what is more perturbing is a seeming reticence on his part to sign a contract gathering dust. While he has said the feelings of the club's supporters will be taken into account, he's been equally clear it will not be the most important factor in his decision.
Procrastination over making a decision, which clearly benefits no one, hints at more underlying issues. What does it say about the club's mid-term prospects when the eternal optimist, blind or otherwise, clearly has real doubts over whether current problems are surmountable? Does he doubt himself or the club? Probably both. It wouldn't be human not to.
Wenger could easily have been referencing himself when, on Saturday, he said: "When something is wrong with your engine, you can usually find many things wrong, but you must find the major problem."
Or maybe he's just finally reconciled to the fact his squad needs major surgery and is weighing whether he's still got a steady enough hand to do it himself.
If Arsenal put the whole of their squad up for sale tomorrow, how many would attract serious attention from Europe's best clubs?
Sanchez is the obvious anomaly among his team-mates in that few dispute his quality, even if he purportedly disputes theirs, per the Telegraph. Ozil is the other who flirts with being a world-class talent and will command fluttering eyelashes from big hitters across the continent, should his own contract talks continue to stall. They might even take him—if they can find him.
Pep Guardiola would probably pay for Hector Bellerin from his own pocket if it meant he could retire at least one of Manchester City's ageing full-backs, while Laurent Koscielny would not be short of suitors.
Other than that, though, Arsenal are a squad full of really good footballers but precious few great ones. The vast majority of their remaining number would be in and around fellow top-six sides, but how many would be certain starters? Probably none. That is precisely why Arsenal have made the top four in every single season during Wenger's 21-year tenure but haven't won the title for 13 campaigns and counting.
Saturday was a fourth defeat in five league games that leaves Arsenal in sixth place. They have conceded 21 goals in seven Premier League matches. It's now six losses from their last 10, with two of three victories in that period coming against non-league clubs in the FA Cup. A 10-2 defeat to Bayern Munich over two legs was the most embarrassing British performance in Europe since Nigel Farage last pitched up in Brussels. They like making signs there, too. Philippe Auclair of France Football tweeted:
Philippe Auclair @PhilippeAuclair
Wenger is aware of the unrest around the club, but not as a fan would be. He'll take it as a spur to prove people wrong. Always has done.2017-3-20 00:37:32
Arsenal are five points off the final English spot in next year's UEFA Champions League with 11 matches left to play, and the club are facing the very real prospect of finishing outside of the top four for the first time since 1995-96 under Bruce Rioch. Stewart Houston is dusting off his tracksuit and trainers.
If Wenger hadn't decided his future prior to the weekend but has subsequently made a decision, he's definitely leaving. Arsenal's performance at the Hawthorns was so abjectly inept, it would have had Wenger considering not just his position but also life, the universe and everything in between. It had all the hallmarks of a team that has thrown in the towel.
Arsenal had 77 per cent possession and about 23 per cent desire.
This was Leicester City in the final throes of being Claudio Ranieri bad. It recalled Chelsea last season when the dressing room was united only in the disdain it held for Mourinho. In the aftermath of losing to Leicester, in what proved his final game before Roman Abramovich summoned the silencer, Mourinho spoke of betrayal in the finest live Shakespearian performance since Sir Laurence Olivier was treading the boards. Anyone flicking over to Sky Sports on the night must have thought they'd mistakenly tuned into Sky Arts.
Wenger's riposte post-match wasn't quite so venomous. He argued Arsenal's record at defending set pieces has actually been quite good this season. Arsenal Fan TV doesn't often see Clive quote Voltaire, but if he ever fancied a change of tone, there are worse lines than "optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable."
Bleacher Report UK @br_uk
Arsenal’s last nine games: L L W L W (non-league opposition) L L W (non-league opposition) L https://t.co/YZOkjB1b1X2017-3-19 01:13:01
The worrying thing for Wenger is the planes were not even the most embarrassing thing in the air on the day. Arsenal's defending at set plays saw to that. West Brom defender Craig Dawson twice netted with headers having been given a free run at corners. His second saw him get in front of two of his team-mates to score. Not a single Arsenal player was anywhere near.
A typically droll Wenger claimed he didn't see the planes overhead. It seems a little implausible given Opta have recorded he has on average looked to the heavens searching for divine inspiration 36.3 times a match since the turn of the year. Wenger doesn't have a Twitter account, but if he did, one suspects he'd have employed a #ShootMeNow hashtag, upon spotting the "No Contract #WengerOut" one that emblazoned the sky on Saturday.
At the final whistle, Arsenal's players sheepishly sloped to the away end looking about as disorientated and trapped in a cycle of ennui as miners on the day they're rescued after months trapped underground. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain described it as a "simply not acceptable" performance, per Sky Sports.
Finally there was something everyone could agree on.