With long-time manager Arsene Wenger‘s status at Arsenal in the spotlight, ProSoccerTalk spoke with Robbie Mustoe about what has happened to Wenger at Arsenal.
Q: Arsenal fans’ protests against Wenger seem louder than ever before. Why do you think this season is different even though Arsenal have been getting similar results as the past few years?
Robbie Mustoe: I think, as you said, the results are similar and in some ways the performances have been similar, some really good ones, particularly the first half of the season when there was a feeling that Arsenal was somewhat different, but I was never fully convinced of this. Although I did like Alexis Sanchez playing as a striker and [Granit] Xhaka was different in midfield, so there was a few differences going into this season, but I still was never convinced about the mentality of the team. Now going back to how it’s different, I think it’s different because it looks to me over the past few weeks that the players have lost respect for the manager.
We can criticize Wenger for some tactical things, some mentality things, some selection things, stuff that always stops him from winning the league title and in the first half of the season that was the same story. It’s changed because I think some of the players now are disbelieving like a lot of other people, the fans you’re seeing now more and more are realizing that it’s time for him to go, ex-players and loyal former guys that worked and played for Arsene Wenger are starting to say it’s definitely time to go. I just think the players have lost respect. Alexis Sanchez on the bench the other day with the smirking, it’s hard to be definitive if he was laughing there, it’s just when you watch them play it looks like they are empty. I’ve said that with Robbie Earle on our radio show, they look empty, they look like there is nothing inside left, that his words are not getting through. I suppose to summarize I think over the last few weeks the players have thrown the towel in a little bit and I’ve not seen that before. That is another massive indication that Wenger has reached the end of his time at Arsenal in my opinion.
Q: What is your takeaway from Wenger’s handling of the Alexis Sanchez situation in both the decision to bench him and his explanation afterward?
RM: The explanation to start with, it’s disappointing because people in the game know that there was nothing tactically different from Arsenal with a direct approach. There’s no way, assuming there’s not been a bust-up which is what Wenger is hinting here, that the joint-top scorer with an incredibly hard mentality, a winning mindset, a great work ethic, tremendous quality, there’s no way he doesn’t get into any team in the Premier League no matter what style you’re playing. The explanation of it was disappointing because it’s just not true.
[ MORE: Wenger to listen to protests ]
Leaving him out, if there is ill-discipline within the squad and if Alexis Sanchez was disrespectful to the manager, to his teammates, then of course as a manager you have the right to leave a player benched for whatever reason. My response to that would be find a way to patch up the disagreement, find a way to get the player back on board again and if you can’t you leave him out of the squad. Don’t put him on the bench and have people like, ‘what’s going on,’ leave him out and be open. Be open about it, if it’s a disagreement for whatever reason there’s various ways that you can go at it. The preferred way in my opinion would be, sit down and try to figure it out because you’re all in this together you need your best players. Without letting the player win, you got to get him back on board whichever way that you do that with man management. Wenger’s got every right if he feels that certain players are undermining him or the squad than absolutely he has every right to drop a player, but don’t leave him on the bench and tell us that it’s a tactical reason. That’s disappointing from a guy that’s so classy and has been around so long and he’s so good generally with the media. This, in my opinion, was incorrect.
Q: Do you think his decision to do this was some sort of last-ditch effort, feeling that he may have lost the respect of his players and trying to do something drastic to shake it up?
RM: Yeah, it is, it was. That’s what I thought. We are having to surmise this. Wenger said there was no bust-up and it’s a normal relationship so this is you know this s what we are suggesting, speculating if you like. That goes back to my last answer, if there is something that the players are revolting against in some way than you leaving your star player on the bench I guess sends a message out, but it just doesn’t feel right. We’ve seen this before with different players and it feels the right thing to do. Again it’s so difficult to speculate, I mean Dimitri Payet at West Ham United there was a big bust-up there. He said he didn’t want to play for the club again. The manager meets with him, meets with him again and just confirms to him that he is going to tell the press what the disagreement is and he did. That felt transparent, clean and open. This just doesn’t.
[ MORE: Arsenal release statement on Wenger ]
We are speculating, whether that’s right or wrong, I still think it’s the last resort to have a bust-up with a star player and leave him on the bench. A bigger message maybe is to leave him out of the squad and be transparent. It just hasn’t been handled very well from Arsene Wenger and I don’t think we’ve seen this before. If our speculation is correct and there has been a bust-up I can’t remember a time when Wenger has had to do this before or left a star player out because of issues not involved with how he’s playing. He’s been the best player for Arsenal and arguably the best player in the league. It has nothing to do with his performance level. It must have been something that was said behind the scenes and hasn’t been handled very well.
Q: Looking at where Arsenal are in the table and the fact that they are still in contention in the FA Cup is there a way this season can still be a success for Wenger and Arsenal?
RM: Yes, they can win the FA Cup and they can finish in the top four. Champions League qualification and winning a trophy has to be a success. Some Arsenal fans would say we’ve seen this before, we want progression, we’ve spent money, we are a little bit stronger, we should be winning the title, but you win an FA Cup and finish in the top four this year that’s a decent season, I don’t care what anybody says. It’s just that you’re concerned with the way that it feels different now. The atmosphere around not only the supporters, but it sounds like within the dressing room, within the playing staff is that this really has come to an end.
We can speculate about stuff happening off the pitch, but I can give you my opinion of what I see from the team. I’ve been watching Arsene Wenger and his team for years and years and years and I’m seeing over the last few weeks with some bad results almost a team that’s saying wow we can’t turn up against the big teams, we can’t get the right results. It seems to me that that FA Cup fixture and the top four finish is going to be extremely hard. Success is possible, some degree of success, but there’s so much that has gone on in these last few weeks. It’s not right at the club and Arsene Wenger himself must realize that. I just don’t know how stubborn he is, I don’t know if he’s just going to say, ‘I don’t care, I have a contract, I’m going to crack on, we’re going to get this right, we’re going to sign some players in the summer.’ That’s one line of thinking, but the other line that would make more sense is, ‘My time has come to an end here. I’m going to let my owner and my board of directors know that this is my last season.’ I’d like that transparency. I’d like that honesty and it could be known to everybody that that’s the intention and I think then the remainder of the season is not so horrible. I think there will be respect and appreciation between now and the end of the season for what he’s done. I just really don’t know what’s going to happen with that. It seems that everybody around the club: pundits, supporters, maybe players now and former players really believe that this is time for him to leave.
For more on Arsene Wenger’s future, listen to the latest 2 Robbies podcast.