Dave Tickner: Nothing will change while Wenger remains

Last Updated March 20 2017, 21:38Football

In his latest column, Dave Tickner wonders where Arsenal and Arsene Wenger go next after an embarrassing display on the pitch and in the skies above The Hawthorns.

It says everything about Arsenal that even after a truly awful performance on the pitch and in the sky above it the story was about Arsene Wenger reaching a decision on his own future.

“I know what I will do so you will know very soon,” Wenger teased in the aftermath of a 3-1 defeat at West Brom that leaves Champions League qualification looking unlikely.

At the time it appeared the wait for Wenger to pass his decision down to the masses would be the story to fill the empty, empty newspages of an international break. It seemed an odd choice to wilfully make yourself the interlull filler, but beneath the dour exterior Wenger is a mischievous sort. Just remember that £40,000,001 Luis Suarez bid.

As it turns out, “very soon” was sooner than anyone initially expected. Amid a post-January run in which Arsenal have lost six games and beaten only Hull, Sutton and Lincoln, Wenger has surveyed the carnage all around him and concluded that there is only one man to solve a crisis that led to not one but two aeroplane banners being flown over the Hawthorns. And that man is, of course, Arsene Wenger.

There have been grumbles before about the power Wenger wields at Arsenal, a club he has rebuilt in his own image with initially stunning but for so long now stagnant returns.

It is the perceived absence of anyone within the Gunners hierarchy with either the clout or, just as importantly, the will to bring Wenger’s reign to an end that leads to aeroplane nonsense from fans and what is starting to look something like strike action from the players - whether that’s big names sitting on the bench with injury niggles or those on the pitch taking the implementation of zonal marking instructions to almost sarcastic levels of daftness when faced with the unstoppable force of Craig Dawson.

If those above Wenger won’t act, then those below him feel compelled to take drastic and undignified action. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

If Monday morning’s reports of a one-year contract extension are correct, it’s hard to see what this really achieves for anyone. It does little to end the uncertainty over the long-term direction of a club that has become – for better and worse – Arsene Football Club. 

Whether Wenger stays or goes, Alexis Sanchez’s exit appears inevitable and there is little to suggest that a long-overdue title challenge is on the cards for 2017/18. 

All that looks likely is another season in and around the top four with the manager’s contract running down and disaffected fans losing even more of their near-exhausted patience.

And there seems little Wenger can do in what remains of this season to quiet the dissenters. The best-case scenario now is precisely the sort of Arsenal-by-numbers season that has already driven so many Gunners to distraction.

He may well pull Arsenal out of their current banner-trailing tailspin and secure another season in the Champions League as he’s done so many times before. 

He may yet preserve another of his proud records by reeling in a Harry Kane-less Tottenham over the closing weeks. Again, it would be far from unprecedented, with nine-point gaps in March often delaying but never cancelling St Totteringham’s Day over the last 10 or so years.

But while that would at least give fans succour this has still been another league season where their local rivals were more competitive for longer, with the new White Hart Lane stadium an increasingly visible reminder of the risks Arsenal take if they continue to tread water.

Arsenal may yet end the season with silverware, a kind draw allowing them to reach the FA Cup semi-finals by something approaching default even during their domestic and European implosion. But right now they are the outsiders of four with the bookmakers, and that’s an assessment that’s hard to contest on current available evidence.

Wenger is, in part, a victim of his own consistency. Perhaps Arsenal need to finish sixth and spend a winter playing on Thursday nights to fully appreciate what Wenger has achieved. The man himself acknowledges that Premier League TV money now means Champions League qualification is no longer the financial necessity for Arsenal it once was.

But still the approach doesn’t change, and Arsenal fans should not be judged harshly just wanting something – anything – different after a decade of elevated, repetitive mediocrity under Wenger.

It’s impossible now to see how anything changes at Arsenal while Wenger remains. The February slump is an established Emirates Stadium fixture now, but this season’s has been the deepest and most prolonged. 

This is as bad as things will ever get for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. That in itself is both compliment and criticism.

But the question that will vex those Arsenal fans who feel change is already overdue: if it’s still “one more year” now, how many one more years are to come?

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