LONDON – Arsene Wenger is not a man to show much emotion.
The Arsenal manager tends to deal with the good, bad and ugly of football in a businesslike manner, rarely losing his cool or showing the joy victory can bring. An Arsenal goal is celebrated by Wenger rising from his dugout, pumping his hands twice in front of his chest in a controlled way before returning to his seat, probably straightening his tie in the process.
Yet after Sunday’s 3-1 win over Everton when he was asked for the millionth time if there was any news about his contract, Wenger looked at the television camera, not the interviewer, and said: “No one can ever doubt my love for this club. I could have left for some of Europe’s big clubs, but I have never broken a contract.”
Even those who do not want the Frenchman to sign a new deal with Arsenal, which should be confirmed next week, would not doubt his love affair with the club. It might want a divorce, but his devotion and faithfulness to Arsenal is not open for discussion.
The “Wenger Out” brigade has accepted, albeit reluctantly, that it is fighting a lost cause and the 67-year-old will be around for at least another couple of years. Some might have perversely hoped Arsenal would lose to Chelsea in Saturday’s F.A. Cup final as it would speed his departure; that has also been ditched because Wenger is going nowhere and there is a more united front leading up to the Wembley clash against the champion.
Because he has conducted himself so well in adversity this season, many neutrals (apart from Tottenham fans) would not begrudge Wenger his seventh F.A. Cup triumph, which would make him the most successful ever manager in the competition. In fact, Wenger is the only foreign manager to have won the cup more than once.
For the first time in 20 years Arsenal will not be in the Champions League next season. Frustration for Arsenal fans should be tempered by the fact that in that time only Real Madrid has also been ever-present in Europe’s most prestigious club competition, though the absence from Europe’s top table was not helped by Tottenham finishing above Arsenal for the first time in 22 years.
Wenger believes the uncertainty over his future has contributed to what he called “a horrendous atmosphere”around the club since January. He said: “Overall I believe that we played since January in a very difficult environment for different reasons. Some obviously that you know about. Other reasons we will talk about another day. But the psychological environment for the group of the players was absolutely horrendous. My personal situation contributed to that.”
Whatever the atmosphere at Emirates Stadium, Arsenal goes into the final in the wake of seven wins in its last eight Premier League matches, so maybe Wenger should consider something else to sour the environment at the start of next season. I am also uncertain that when players cross the white line whether matters such as the manager’s uncertain future is in their minds though it is typical of Wenger to attempt to deflect any blame from his team.
The biggest problem he has Saturday is the absence of central defenders Laurent Koscielny, who is suspended after a brainless tackle against Everton, and Gabriel, who is injured. The only fit center-halves are Rob Holding and Per Mertesacker, but the latter for one reason or another has not started a match for 13 months. If Shkodran Mustafi is not available following a head injury, Wenger may be forced to revert to a four-man back-line.
Chelsea is the last team anyone would want to face with such a defensive crisis because Pedro, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa (plus Willian and super sub Michy Batshuayi, four goals in his last three matches) offer a potent mix of strength and speed. Chelsea has won its last six league games scoring 20 goals in the process and has been by far the best team, winning the title with a swagger and playing the type of attacking football Jose Mourinho never managed, despite his success at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea is now not just respected, but loved and Antonio Conte has belatedly given Roman Abramovich his dream combination of success with style.
However, a warning. Those who love the romance of the F.A. Cup should be aware that in the 26 games from the past quarter of a century (the extra match being Arsenal’s replay with Sheffield Wednesday in 1993 before the format was changed to a penalty shootout) on only eight occasions has the final ended with more than a single goal deficit. In there, too, are seven 1-0 wins.
A third F.A. Cup success in four years would be a useful platform for Wenger to sign his new contract and the Frenchman has proved to be a master of the competition. Arsenal is always most dangerous when its back is to the wall and in Alexis Sanchez it has the most complete forward on view.
Yet while tradition dictates it is likely to be close, Chelsea has proved to be a lean, mean winning machine and predicting anything but a Blues victory has proved dangerous.
Outlook for Rooney grim
His England career seems to have come to a premature end at 31 and Wayne Rooney is unlikely to get his wish and retire from international football after the 2018 World Cup in Russia when he would become the first England player to have performed at four World Cups and the first to have played in seven major tournaments. Gareth Southgate has effectively retired the country’s leading goal scorer.
The manager said the door is still open for Rooney, but he can only force his way back if he is playing regular club football; he started just 15 matches for Manchester United this season, most of those toward the start. In contrast, Jermain Defoe, 34, who was relegated with Sunderland, retains his place in the England squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Scotland and the friendly against France.
It now remains to be seen whether Rooney is prepared, if not happy, to be a bit-part player at Old Trafford and his chances of first-team football will be reduced by the continued improvement of Marcus Rashford, with Jose Mourinho bringing in new recruits for the challenge of the Champions League after Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Ajax in the Europa League final.
Rooney’s reported £300,000 a week wages obviously restricts the number of clubs who could afford him. Inevitably China will be touted as a likely destination, though Rooney would be reluctant to uproot his young family for such an unfamiliar environment. He will also be aware that if he wishes to extend his international career, David Beckham is the only player to play for England while being at a club outside Europe. The former United winger played 14 times between August 2007 and October 2009 when at Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy, and a further five times in 2009 when on loan from the Galaxy to AC Milan.
Earning megabucks is always a nice perk, though at times it makes your next step more difficult. No sympathy cards, please.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5