Arsene Wenger has told his players to stop using doubts over his future as an excuse for bad results.
Arsenal ’s dismal run of four defeats in their last five Premier League games has left boss Wenger facing the prospect of finishing outside the top four for the first time in his 21-year reign in North London.
That poor stretch of form has come against a backdrop of uncertainty about Wenger’s future.
Even if everything points towards the 67-year-old Frenchman staying for another two years, the players genuinely have no idea. Those that have enquired have now given up asking.
Wenger’s coaches and staff at the training ground have also been left in the dark.
Jack Wilshere turned up at the training ground on Thursday. But it was not to discuss his future, merely to pick up some signed shirts.
England midfielder Wilshere, who is on a season’s loan at Bournemouth and has a year left on his Gunners contract, does not know what is going on with his own future, let alone the manager’s.
Everyone at the club is in limbo.
The players all suspect he is going to sign a new deal and Wenger’s jovial recent mood also suggests he is happy enough, despite many fans being unhappy.
It is hard to argue that the uncertainty is not damaging results.
The backlash from supporters could reach unprecedented levels – although, generally, the resentment is greater among the hardcore away support than the latte-sipping classes who attend games at the Emirates – if Arsenal lose to visitors Manchester City on Sunday.
But Wenger has told the players it is time to man-up.
“Being professional is to perform on the football pitch and not to find escape in excuses where I think there are not,” he said on Thursday.
“Results are not going the way we want, but we have to make sure that the priority for us is what happens on the pitch.
“I agree that at West Brom [where Arsenal were poor in losing 3-1 in their final game before the international break] we had blind possession – we had 70 per cent possession going nowhere. There was something missing.
“I want the players to focus on their job. Their job is to perform and for me [it is] to help them to perform and to develop as players. That is, for me, what matters, really.
“What really matters at the moment is to stick tighter and show that we care about the end of our season, about this club and about our values that we stand up for.
“It is in difficult periods that you see the difference in quality between people.”
Wenger was simply not going to be forced or coerced into saying something he did not want to say regarding his future.
But if body language is a good indicator, there can be no doubt that his mind is made up.
This is a totally different man from the edgy, nervous and frustrated Wenger in 2014, when there were all these same doubts.
Then too, Arsenal were in danger of missing out on the top four, were in the FA Cup semi-finals and the manager’s contract was running out.
There was genuine uncertainty — if they had lost to Wigan in the semis, or Hull in the final, then Wenger might have walked away.
This time, he has made up his mind and has told the club he wants to stay. Now they just have to choose the right time to announce it.
Wenger staying on for another two years will divide opinion as the atmosphere is already toxic, but he will get his chance to get rebuild the club from top to bottom.
They need a new Academy boss, want to bring in a new director of football in the longer term and, of course, to overhaul a squad which has ensured it will be at least 14 years between title triumphs this summer.
When really pushed on his future and whether he is staying or going, Wenger replied: “Look, I have nothing more to say.
“You want to force me to talk about something I don’t want to talk about. One day, I will answer!
“I’m very clear in my mind. But anyway, do I stay [another] two months or two years? My commitment will be exactly the same [in either case]. The time I spent here does not influence my attitude at all.
“We have two games in hand and the games are coming up thick and fast.
“Our season will now be decided by the next two months, but as well by the ability and the strength we can show together to fight and come back in a very convincing way.
“It’s a strange season, because we played 20 games unbeaten. If you look at our offensive numbers, they are very good.
“But I cannot sit here and say ‘We have no flaws or weaknesses in our team’,because we have. The results are there.
“I think there is a very, very strong basis but the team needs to be strengthened, of course.”