Could the FA Cup save Arsene Wenger?

There was something so un-Arsene Wenger about the way in which he celebrated the semi-final win over Manchester City.

Arsene Wenger

Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger Source: AFP

How to describe it? Raw, pure emotion from one of world football’s calmest men. An almost visceral like reaction to the final whistle as the Gunners advanced with a 2-1 extra-time win over Manchester City.

Some might argue that the FA Cup isn’t what it used to be. Perhaps; but then you see this, and you know just how much it means to Wenger.

He’s won it six times already – in itself a staggering record. In that sense, you’d think he wouldn’t care too much about a seventh but the truth couldn’t be further apart. He wants this one twice as bad as any of the previous ones.

And here’s the nub: unlike all those previous victories, for the sake of his career, he probably needs to win this one.

So when you tune in tomorrow morning (Live on SBS from 1:45am) for kick-off against Chelsea, rest assured, much more than a title is on the line at Wembley.

For the first time in 21 years, Arsenal will go into next season without a spot in the Champions League. Now that Arsenal’s fifth-placing is confirmed, the pressure couldn’t be greater on a manager who was already under tremendous pressure.

To a man, it seems every Arsenal fan wants to move on – it’s just a question of whether Wenger should be executed now or given a more dignified exit strategy.

There will be a board meeting in the days after the match to decide on Wenger’s future. It would seem unlikely to let him go after a win tonight, but there is precedent.

It was only a year ago that a win in the final couldn’t save Louis van Gaal. A deal for Jose Mourinho had already been drawn up and was all over the news barely hours after the full-time whistle. Truly, the corpse was still warm.

Things are a little different at Arsenal. Parting from Wenger would never be an easy decision; more like Sir Alex Ferguson departing Old Trafford than van Gaal. And having seen how poorly United have gone since then, the Arsenal board will be nervous about pulling the trigger knowing what may be waiting for them.

In Wenger’s corner, however, is his biggest fan – who also happens to be the majority owner. Stan Kroenke has the kind of faith in Wenger that most of us could only dream of from a boss. He can’t seem to put a foot wrong with the American, no matter what the final score or ladder position. Kroenke just loves him.

But does the other owner, Alisher Usmanov? Not bloody likely. Critics are adamant that Usmanov’s bid for control of Kroenke’s stake this past week was more than a bid for shares. It was a statement of intent; a desire to change the whole running of the club.

Usmanov’s £1 billion ($1.7 billion) bid was for Kroenke’s 67 per cent share; an extraordinary amount of money by any measure. But he rejected the offer cold, and the Russian was left to wonder about what it would take to impart his vision on the Emirates. Clearly a whole lot more.

For now, Kroenke stays, and so does Wenger. But it is clear that the Frenchman’s salad days are long gone, and to most it would seem only a matter of time before he moves back to the French Riviera.

Yet even as Wenger’s 68th birthday looms large in October, his desire to be involved hasn’t waned. Nor has his appetite for the challenge. And that’s why the win over City made him so emotional.

This may be the last chance Wenger gets to lift a trophy. There is a chance – a small one – that it could even be his last ever game in football. If he loses badly, it may put Kroenke in an impossible spot.

But if the Gunners come up trumps, the manager’s hand is that little bit stronger, and we may yet see Le Professeur suiting up for at least one more campaign in his famous red dugout.

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4 min read
Published 27 May 2017 at 9:21am
By Sebastian Hassett