LONDON — Arsene Wenger says he understands why Arsenal fans are frustrated but suggested their planned protest this weekend had been driven by pundits with a “personal agenda” and added that the negative atmosphere at the Emirates had been a factor in their poor home form.
Wenger launched a staunch defence of his own record at the club and of his squad at his news conference on Friday, saying pundits who criticise the team have “less character” than his players as well as insisting that under-fire owner Stan Kroenke is “very ambitious.”
The long-time Arsenal boss is under heavy pressure after the Gunners’ title challenge ended meekly over the last month and they now face another fight for a top-four finish. Two major supporter groups are urging fans to hold up signs during Saturday’s home game against Norwich saying it is “Time for change” at the club.
“I can understand the frustration because no one is more frustrated than we are, but our disappointment has to not go too far,” Wenger said.
“You have to put things a little bit in perspective and see how the club’s evolution has gone over the years. I believe that it was not always easy, and the quality of the work we’ve done at the club got them today in a strong position where the expectation level is very high. And where the frustration is very high as well when we do not get what we want.”
Discontent among fans has become increasingly widespread during the second half of the season, but Wenger said the negativity directed toward the team is driven by a just a few individuals with a “personal agenda.”
“There are some groups of people who try to manipulate our fans, and they do that well. I believe that apart from a personal agenda and a big ego, there is not a lot behind it. That’s what I think basically,” he said.
Arsenal have faced regular criticism from pundits this season, including former Arsenal players Paul Merson and Ian Wright and celebrity Gunners fan Piers Morgan.
However, when asked whose agenda he was referring to, Wenger declined to elaborate.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Honestly I don’t worry too much about that. What is interesting for me in football is the quality of the game, and the values that we want to present. This club is hugely respected and loved all over the world.”
He meant me, and that’s fine.
Very happy to debate ego & manipulation with Wenger any time, any place. https://t.co/0d5Gvqvlws
– Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) April 29, 2016
My only ‘agenda’ is to make Arsenal compete for big trophies again after 12yrs of failure. https://t.co/qhq7aMB5EF
– Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) April 29, 2016
Wenger also hit back at the pundits who have questioned the mentality of the current squad as they repeatedly came up short in important games this season.
“Some people question their character — I tell you something, this team has character and attitude,” he said. “And some people who question them, I know them well, they have less character than this team has. Because I saw them play, and even know them very closely.
“They should not question the character of these players, because they are exceptional characters. We are disappointed but we have to fight.”
Wenger acknowledged that Arsenal lost the title by dropping too many points at home against lower-table clubs.
With 34 points from 17 games at the Emirates, Arsenal have taken fewer than Leicester, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham. Away from home, they have 30 from 18, with only Leicester and Spurs having taken more.
“I believe as well when a club cannot enjoy anything anymore, it is in trouble,” he said. “We can’t forget that in football you go down very quickly and you come up very slowly, so we have to stick together.
“We lost the championship at home against the lower teams, but we played sometimes at home in a very difficult climate. We have to realise that away from home we are championship winners.
“At home, against the smaller teams, we dropped the points. We are top of the league in [matches between] the top teams.
“We want to add what is needed, but I told you this club has special values, and one of its values I’ve experienced over the years is to stick together and support the team. There is no success otherwise.”
Wenger is in his 20th season at Arsenal and has been involved in the Champions League every season since 1998-99.
However, the Gunners have not won the league title since 2004 and were hoping to end that streak this year after bringing their trophy drought to an end with consecutive FA Cup titles in 2014 and 2015.
Having been top of the table in January, though, they have imploded and now look set to finish behind arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur for the first time since 1994-95.
“It is very frustrating because we were in a position for a long, long time where we could compete for the title,” he said. “We wanted to go a step higher and win the league, which was possible. That’s why we are frustrated.”
Fans have directed much of their anger toward Kroenke, Arsenal’s American owner, over a perceived lack of ambition as the club maintained a frugal spending policy in the transfer market.
However, Wenger said Kroenke has never blocked him from buying a certain player.
“Never. The owner is very ambitious of course. We are all very ambitious,” Wenger said. “I do not want to go into personal comment on my owners. We can work with complete freedom. I believe that every football club should work with the resources it generates, and that is what we do. When I speak about values, this is one of the values I speak about, and we are very proud to do that.”
Wenger again brought up the financial strain of building the Emirates when defending his own record at the club. The Frenchman has one year left on his current contract and has said he will remain at the club next season, and reiterated that when he does step down he will leave Arsenal in a better financial situation.
“I wish when I will go that the club goes higher up and wins the Champions League and the championship every year. I will be the biggest supporter in the stand, because I will feel I contributed a little bit to that with the basis that we have built,” he said.
“You have to remember that when we built the stadium we had five to seven difficult financial years when we had to pay back [loans]. Out of five years we had to be three years in the Champions League and have an average attendance of 54,000 people.
“We didn’t know we’d be capable of doing that, but of course we had to sell our best players every year, and survive — and we survived at the top level and we did not do three years out of five, we did five years out of five. And I think the club is now out of that period and is in a much stronger position. It is today in a position where we can compete again financially with our main opponents, but during that time it was very difficult.”