Afterward, he was in a contemplative, even somber mood, bemoaning — as he often does — that “nothing is good enough” in modern soccer’s frenzied, hyperbolic landscape.
Few would have expected him to be sociable, but he still extended the traditional invitation to Danny Cowley, Lincoln’s manager, together with his brother and assistant Nicky, to join him in his office. The Cowleys expected it to be a cursory meeting, given “the week he’d had.” They ended up staying for an hour and a half, talking “about training routines, schedules, team selection, the way he deals with the big squad he has.” Wenger even shared Arsenal’s scouting reports on Lincoln.
That week in March, a storm was raging around Arsenal. Wenger stood in its eye, unfazed, unflustered and unmoved.
A Brewing Storm
There is an old line about why England, in the turbulent years of the 19th and 20th centuries, never succumbed to revolution: because it rains too much. People tend not to take to the streets if they know they’re likely to get soaked.
The converse is true of Arsenal. Mutiny has been simmering at Arsenal for a decade, maybe more. Every couple of years, when the time comes to renew Wenger’s contract, to extend his 21-season stay at the club, dissenting voices demand his departure.
But there is always just enough sunshine to quell the rebellion: a fourth-place finish, another year in the Champions League, maybe an F.A. Cup thrown in for good measure.
These last two months, the unrest has manifested at almost every game. At the start of April, Arsenal hosted Manchester City. Outside its Emirates Stadium, a van had been festooned with messages demanding Wenger’s departure. Inside, as the club’s chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, was meeting with fan groups, promising that this summer would be a “catalyst for change” at Arsenal, others were handing out leaflets, trying to stir the masses to overthrow the gilded chains Wenger has bound them in.
Arsenal was in the midst of its worst run under Wenger’s aegis; another defeat, it seemed, might finally tip the club over the edge, into outright insurrection.
When Leroy Sané put Manchester City ahead, the reaction was not disappointment, or encouragement, but anger. Theo Walcott equalized for Arsenal; two minutes later, Sergio Agüero restored City’s lead. More venom, more poison, more rage against Wenger’s machine. There were jeers at halftime.
Wenger has long given the impression he would quit if that was the consensus of the fans, but the protesters have never been in a majority. Even now, when one group hired an airplane to buzz over a match against West Bromwich Albion at the end of March demanding Wenger’s removal, another group did the same, asking that he stay.
Against City, though, the mutineers must have felt their moment had come. More and more “Wenger Out” signs were visible at games; they were popping up across the world, too, in political protests in Belgrade, at soccer matches in South Africa, at WrestleMania. The time for uprising was at hand.
A few minutes later, Shkodran Mustafi equalized again. Arsenal salvaged a draw. There is always just enough sunshine.
Business as Usual
Early in February, Ian Wright, the ebullient former Arsenal striker, and his wife attended an exclusive dinner at Emirates Stadium. Wenger, his erstwhile manager, was there, too. After steak and potatoes dauphinoise, Wenger gave an address to the room in which he acknowledged that he was “coming to the end” of his career.
The next evening, Wright was a guest on a BBC radio program. He relayed what Wenger had said and, when pressed, admitted he felt that Wenger had looked weary. “He was fine when we were talking about how the kids were doing, stuff like that,” Wright remembered this week. “But when we started talking football, it was as though he had to take a deep breath.”
Wenger has since said the meal came at the end of a long day. Wright stands by his impression of Wenger that evening, even if since that point, he said, he has heard “nothing but fighting talk” from him.
At the time, though, Wright’s comments unleashed a wave of speculation that this time, Wenger was ready to step down. It had long been known that the club had a two-year contract extension ready for him to sign, whenever he had the time; now Chips Keswick, Arsenal’s gloriously aristocratic chairman, had released a statement saying any renewal would be “mutual,” a subtle but significant change of tack.
Wenger has been asked, every week since, if he will stay or go. His answer has always been the same: All will be revealed at the end of the season. “The way he is dealing with it is fantastic,” said Patrick Vieira, the New York City F.C. manager, who anchored some of Wenger’s greatest teams.
Wenger’s reasoning is not always consistent — sometimes he says that he has decided, other times that he has not — but most within the club think the silence means he is staying. “He has the air of a man in control of what is happening,” Wright said.
If he has told anyone, one way or the other, within Arsenal’s hierarchy, the secret is guarded jealously. He has, certainly, not told his players, although he admits they have asked. They are not surprised to be left in the dark: Players do not see him as the greatest of communicators.
He abhors confrontation, or any sort of awkward conversation: He neither told Gilberto Silva that he was being stripped of the club captaincy — he read about it on the club website — nor, a few years later, informed Per Mertesacker that he was being awarded it. For Mertesacker, the decision was confirmed only when he was asked if he had written his first set of notes for the match-day program.
Elsewhere at the club, it is business as normal, too. There has been considerable investment into the training facilities and the youth academy. Dick Law, who oversees Arsenal’s transfer business, has been holding meetings with agents; the club is set on signing a left back and going from there. Arsenal may, eventually, appoint a sporting director of some sort. The club is planning for the future. Only Wenger knows, really, if he is involved in it.
Manager for Life
For a man who has devoted his life to his sport, Wenger often sounds as if he loathes vast swaths of it. Not the game itself, but the soccer-industrial complex that has sprung up around it.
In his news media briefings, he regularly starts sentences with a variation on the phrase “we live in a world:” We live in a world only of winners and losers (August 2005); we live in a world of emotion and excess (February 2013); we live in a world where what is superficial is at the heart of the debate (April 2017).
It is easy to believe there is a part of him that might be relieved to walk away. Those who know him see that. “He gets affected by the negativity,” Vieira said. “When things are not going right, the criticism hurts.”
But equally, they do not know what would fill the void. It is a theme that recurs in conversations with Wenger’s friends and former colleagues, this sense that he endures as much out of fear of what comes next as love for all he has done.
Bixente Lizarazu, the former France fullback and now an ambassador for Bayern Munich, has “shared many dinners” with Wenger over the years, thanks to their work together for French television. “Football is in his blood,” he said. “It is in his brain, 24/7. He is crazy about it. It is impossible for him to stop. If he stopped football. …” Lizarazu tailed off.
At Arsenal, they worry about what the future looks like without Wenger. But Wenger is no less troubled by what the future looks like without Arsenal, without soccer. At the end of the longest week of his career, he could sit and wade through scouting reports for an hour and a half. It is all he knows, all he has known. There will be no sunshine when it is gone.
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