Date: 21st November 2011 at 7:52am
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“You want me to say that if I don`t make the top four I`ll quit” Arsene Wenger said with a knowing smile in his press conference after the Norwich game. The L`Equipe interview published that morning was pretty much the focus of journalists post-match interest in the absence of any other real ‘crisis` headlines based on the team`s fairly comfortable win in Norfolk. The interview apparently took place up to 3 weeks ago when the atmosphere surrounding Wenger and the club had just passed through febrile times. Arsene has faced journalists far too often after 15 years in England to fall into the journalistic trap of giving away that headline.

Considered today it seems an innocent enough observation that any manager who hadn`t met expectations would reconsider his role at the end of a season if more usually others hadn`t by then already done so for him. Though things can change quickly in football, given recent interviews with Kroenke who alone now at the club has the ultimate power to hire and fire, the prospect of that consideration coming from the board is pretty remote. But there`s no doubt that throughout the summer period there has been a pretty vocal chorus from supporters some of whose minds were pretty well made up that it was time to call time. The disappointment of the dying of the light at the end of last season coupled with the lack of prompt marquee transfer signings to match protracted marquee departures and a horrendous start to the season was more than enough to test the faith of many supporters. Enough certainly to make the consideration as to whether it was now time for change a perfectly reasonable one.

The fact that for the first time in Wenger`s reign the question could reasonably be asked is probably what gave greater weight to his own thoughts and the doubts implicit in his response to the L`Equipe interviewer`s question which fed the weekend newsfeeds. “If you feel you are below what people are expecting of you..” seems to be the criteria that Arsene has set for himself. What is expected of him? Arsene isn`t too sure “I can return that question to you – what do you expect of me?” was his retort.

The reality is that, save the obvious but unlikely, there isn`t a realistically objective measure. Winning a Carling Cup wouldn`t change anything. It hasn`t for the last two Spud managers to do so and our aspirations, and possibly just about our expectations too, would also demand some greater prize. The answer is largely if not entirely emotive and reactive, more about feelings than rational judgements. Even if expectations, taking full account of the environment the club is operating in, are lowered then the mere act of lowering expectations could be enough for both supporters and manager to conclude that change is unavoidable. Realism has its consequences and that recognition is probably the doubt present in Wenger`s mind when giving the L`Equipe interview.

The strain of the last few seasons has been apparent for sometime as Arsene has kicked bottles, thrown jackets, uncharacteristically used the ‘f` word and avoided handshakes while small but noisy groups of discontented supporters, some organised, have howled in protest. To some extent chastened by the criticism he has endured so far this season he seems far more subdued and reflective. I`d hesitate to add the word resigned, as it would be impossible for him to have got the team back up at all if that were the case, but there does seem an air of resignation at times. That could just be a man composed, calm and controlled but it could also be the acceptance that despite everything he and the club has achieved there are factors in the game that will, for the immediate future, confound any effort he can make to deliver the expectations he has built up among supporters. Even if there is broad acceptance of that among enough supporters it may not be enough for Arsene to be fully satisfied in himself with his role. At least not while he still feels young enough to take up another challenge.

There is plenty still to be played out in this story. As scarce as they were earlier in the season already the number of stories and pundit observations that ‘criticisms of Wenger are ridiculous` are on the increase. Yet a few weeks ago Lee Dixon could confidently insist a top four finish was out of our reach and question whether we would even make the top eight without too much dissent. At least starting the season as poorly as we did and hopefully ending it brightly would this time have us all feeling a little happier than the reverse tendency we`ve seen in other seasons.

I find this to be a truly fascinating period in the history of the club and the relationship between the manager and supporters. There`s more than one potential path the tale can take. How it unfolds has much to do with what happens on the pitch this season but its impact on what happens off it and the fans and the manager`s reactions will be an absorbing sideshow through the rest of the season. Whatever happens the club is in good shape overall and will, as it has done for the last 125 years, continue to write its history long after any manager or player goes. Wenger may very well go on to fulfil his contract ending in 2014. Presently that seems the more likely. But whether he goes this summer or goes another two years with or without another pot to his tally if there is to be any sadness at all in such a gloriously successful period of the clubs history it`s in the sentiment behind Arsene`s own somewhat rueful contemplation “What’s hard is the feeling something is coming to an end”

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