LONDON, Feb 16 (Reuters) - As Arsene Wenger began the job of re-energising his players after their mauling by Bayern Munich, English football wondered whether its longest-serving manager, whose contract is up at the end of the season, might be the real casualty of Arsenal’s Champions League humiliation.
The 67-year-old Frenchman was stunned almost into silence after Wednesday’s game, answering just three questions in a press conference that lasted under three minutes.
Wenger is due to speak publicly again on Friday, by which time he will have had time not only to digest the 5-1 defeat but also the hostile reaction from pundits and former Arsenal players who lined up to predict his demise when his contract expires this summer.
Such is Wenger’s standing at the club, over which he has presided for 20 years, he will effectively decide his own fate.
A new deal has been offered but Arsenal legends Lee Dixon, Ian Wright and Bob Wilson all said they felt Wenger might decide to walk away.
“I doubt he will sleep very much between now and a horrible (FA Cup) game on an artificial pitch at Sutton on Monday night,” said Wilson. “He might say enough is enough.”
Critics were quick to point out that Wenger’s explanation for the Munich mauling -- that his players were “jaded and lacking organisation” -- reflected his own managerial shortcomings, and almost mirrored his remarks the last time his side were thumped, also 5-1, by the same opponents 18 months earlier.
The only support seemed to come from Bayern manager Carlo Ancelotti. “This is football,” he said. “I think Arsene has a lot of experience, the experience to manage this moment, this result and look forward to the next game. It’s only one game.”
The trouble is, it isn‘t.
Six successive eliminations at the same stage of the knockout phase do not suggest coincidence and a tactically disjointed Arsenal side were well beaten by opponents below their best.
Arsenal’s two biggest stars Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, underperformed in wildly contrasting fashion and did little to suggest either is worth the enhanced new contracts they seek.
While Ozil was anonymous, confirming the critical view that he goes missing in the big games, Sanchez got visibly agitated in chasing the ball, often on his own.
It was unclear whether his solo defiance accorded to a game plan that he had just invented, or one put in place by Wenger which his team mates were ignoring. Either way, it did not reflect well on the manager at the heart of it all.
Wenger’s next challenge could not be more different -- an FA Cup tie next Monday on a 3G pitch at non-league Sutton United.
Once again, the cameras will be there to track Wenger’s every move on live TV, with acres of newsprint likely to be devoted to whether the clock is really ticking on his 20 years at the club.
There is, of course, no right way for a long-standing manager to quit. Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest were relegated in his last season, when his battle with alcoholism became increasingly obvious. Clough was 58 but never managed again. A better template was offered by Sir Alex Ferguson, who retracted his first retirement announcement in 2001 before eventually leaving Manchester United at the age of 71 after winning the title for the 13th time, in 2013.
But with Arsenal already 10 points behind leaders Chelsea, and with a tricky game at Liverpool next up, Wenger knows a fourth title on his watch is unlikely.
So, with no side ever coming back from such a first-leg Champions League deficit, the best he can probably hope for is a top-four finish and an FA Cup win, precisely the same as they managed in 2014 and 2015.
Whether the fans will view that as progress remains to be seen. (Reporting by Neil Robinson,; Editing by Neville Dalton)