July 26 has become a key date in the Arsenal diary. It might even be a historic day.
Singapore’s National Stadium will host a friendly match with Atletico Madrid and it could be the first time since 1996 an Arsenal first team managed by someone other than Arsene Wenger takes the field.
However, Singapore is not yet nailed on to host such an occasion. Arsenal’s players may well be redirected to another engagement, since there is now a very real prospect that Wenger’s team end up seventh in the Premier League, his lowest finish.
Eleven days after Moscow stages the World Cup final, Arsenal could be kicking off their competitive season in the second qualifying round of the Europa League. Should that happen, an even emptier Emirates than usual will greet the new manager and era.
Such has been the misery of Arsenal’s season, one in which significant cash has been spent, with strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang costing a combined £100m, while Wenger’s goodwill has all but been frittered.
The subject of the Frenchman’s future has become an annual theme, and much to his obvious annoyance, but this time there are few back-page newspaper leads proclaiming the end. This time, it feels accepted he will be moving on. There is talk he fancies working somewhere other than the city, club and country he has made his home for over two decades.
Slowly, Wenger’s control of the club he feels he has built into the ultramodern entity of 2018 has been eroded.
New suits waft down the corridors of power. Majority owner Stan Kroenke’s son, Josh, recently became vice chairman of Kroenke Sports Enterprises, the holding company of which Arsenal is a key component.
Kroenke Jr has recently been spending time in London on a “fact-finding” mission. Ex-Borussia Dortmund chief scout Sven Misilintat and former Barcelona negotiator Raul Sanllehi have also been added to the phalanx of execs surrounding Wenger, who dolefully admitted in February that “I am an employee”.
His status has descended since then. Sean Dyche’s Burnley – constructed on a fraction of Wenger’s budget – are coming off four straight victories after beating Leicester City 2-1 on Saturday, and lie just two points behind Arsenal, whose dreadful away from continued with a deserved 2-1 Sunday loss at Newcastle.
When The Gunners host Burnley on May 6, they may well be playing off for sixth, and to able to make that lucrative Asian tour date.
At least the Burnley match will be a home fixture. Wenger’s men are still to collect a single point from trips beyond the Emirates in 2018, making theirs the worst away record in the top five divisions of English football, though equally the Emirates betrays the apathy that has seized London’s biggest club.
Though the club’s official records release attendance figures as “tickets sold”, with their last game on April 8 announced as 59,374, anyone catching a few seconds of an Arsenal game on TV will have noticed great, aching space of red seats.
Season ticket holders are no longer bothering to show up, having found something more interesting to do on the Thursday-Sunday treadmill that being in the Europa League has locked Arsenal into.
In an era before television money filled top-division football clubs’ coffers, an emptying stadium was a sure-fire way to hurry a manager out the door.
In both 1981 and 1986, Manchester United sacked Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson with declining attendance figures given as the public reason for a change in management.
And gate receipts remain a highly significant factor at Arsenal, who made £141m from TV in the 2015-16 season against £100m pulled in from gate receipts.
Corporate revenue gained from the Emirates’ 5,000 exec seats is as much as the yield from the other 50,000 in the stadium, and a lack of Champions League football and a fading cachet, as compared to say, the exciting new team and spanking facilities set to be on offer at Tottenham’s “New White Hart Lane” next season, may reduce the amount of corporate customers too.
A time for change has arrived, even taking into account continued progress in this season’s Europa League. Even then, judging by the anguished reactions among fans to pulling Atletico in next week’s semi-final, much hope has been extinguished there, too.
European final would offer a chance to bury some serious ghosts. Wenger has been a losing manager in each of the Champions League (2006), UEFA Cup (2000) and Cup Winners’ Cup (1992 when with Monaco) finals, but a shaky defence, powderpuff midfield and an attack that will be lacking the cup-tied Aubameyang would appear to have only a slim chance of advancing past Diego Simeone’s canny, battle-hardened and fiercely talented Atleti.
The competition’s final in Lyon represents Wenger’s remaining hope of writing his own epitaph like old adversary Sir Alex Ferguson, who signed off with a league title in 2013.
Beyond that, announcing the manager’s time has finally come to an end is his and Arsenal’s only hope of winning back hearts and refilling the Emirates.