London: Arsene Wenger is under unprecedented pressure to end his storied 21-year tenure as Arsenal manager following their humiliating 10-2 aggregate defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Tuesday’s abject 5-1 defeat in the second leg was preceded by a fan protest and ended in front of swathes of empty red seats at the Emirates Stadium.
Wednesday’s sports headlines spoke of “humiliation” and an “all-time low”, while the players who helped Wenger turn Arsenal into the superclub they are today said the time for change had finally come.
“He looks like a lost man,” Ian Wright, Arsenal’s second-highest goalscorer, said on BT Sport. “It just seems to be mounting up. You’ve got the fans, the protests. It’s imploding.”
Though noisy, the prematch protest was a low-key affair, attended by only around 200 fans, but the banners held and slogans chanted revealed the extent of the divisions within Arsenal’s fan base over Wenger.
The protesters’ banners bore messages including “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH”, “STUBBORN. STALE. CLUELESS” and, in reference to the two-year deal for Wenger that is reportedly on the table, “NO NEW CONTRACT”.
Some fans even chanted: “Arsene Wenger, you’re killing our club!”
Wenger, 67, has said he will make an announcement about his future either this month or next.
He is not thought to be under any pressure from above, with American majority shareholder Stan Kroenke said to be happy with Wenger given his repeated success in qualifying Arsenal for the Champions League.
The retiring Kroenke, known as ‘Silent Stan’, was also the target of protests during the rout by Bayern, angry supporters urging him to “get out of our club”.
But as Arsenal’s most successful manager, Wenger will be allowed to determine the timing and nature of his departure.
While he refused to be drawn on his future in Tuesday’s post-match press conference, he gave an upbeat assessment of the club’s current health.
“I think this club is in great shape, but we’re just going through a very difficult situation at the moment,” said the Frenchman.
The signs of stasis, however, have become impossible to ignore.
Arsenal have gone out of the Champions League in the last 16 for the past seven seasons running and it is now 13 years since they last lifted the Premier League trophy.
The signings of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, coupled with back-to-back FA Cup successes in 2014 and 2015, hinted at a return to former glories, but the two players have come to symbolise the current malaise.
Ozil has become a ghostlike figure, seemingly incapable of rising to the big occasion, and while Sanchez continues to produce the goods on the pitch, he is becoming problematic off it.
The Chile forward was reported to have clashed with teammates in training last week — reports Wenger denied — and was pictured supposedly smirking on the bench after being taken off against Bayern.
Both he and Ozil are stalling over new contracts.
Publicly, the players continue to put on a united front, with right-back Hector Bellerin declaring “the whole team is behind the manager”.
But Britain’s football writers believe the Bayern embarrassment represented a thrashing too far in the story of Arsenal and Arsene.
“Arsene Wenger must go” was The Sun’s stark verdict, while the Daily Mirror’s chief football writer John Cross, who published a biography of Wenger in 2015, said the Bayern rout “must represent the endgame”.
With Arsenal having slipped out of the top four in the Premier League, and amid competition for places that is fiercer than ever, qualifying for the Champions League for a 19th successive season will be a battle.
In the meantime, Arsenal return to the Emirates on Saturday for an FA Cup quarter-final against non-league Lincoln City.
Wenger is chasing a record seventh triumph in the competition and, it seems increasingly likely, a glorious farewell.