LONDON, March 15 – Arsene Wenger is concerned that growing supporter unrest could force him into an early Arsenal exit despite having the indisputable backing of the club’s board.
The Frenchman, who has one year left on his deal after this season, will be allowed to mastermind his exit strategy but acrimony from Arsenal supporters means he could consider walking away after 20 years in north London.
Owner Stan Kroenke has given the beleaguered boss his full backing despite the team’s alarming slump in form.
Arsenal are 11 points adrift of Leicester in the Premier League title race and were dumped out of the FA Cup at home by Watford on Sunday.
They face Barcelona in the Nou Camp on Wednesday needing to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit to progress to the Champions League last eight.
Fans clashed outside the Emirates following Sunday’s Cup exit and, should the mutiny in the stands get worse, Wenger could do the unthinkable and leave before the end of his contract.
Sources insist Wenger is as determined as ever to continue, but increasing bitterness from supporters who once revered him has shaken the manager.
Wenger has always maintained he will leave when he no longer feels he is the right man for the job.
And the behaviour of fans until the end of the season could be pivotal as English football’s longest-serving current boss ponders his future.
The Arsenal board believes Wenger has earned the right to plan his own exit given the sterling service he has provided since arriving in 1996.
The club has won three Premier League titles and six FA Cups under the 66-year-old and there is no prospect of Wenger being sacked.
Kroenke fully expects Wenger to remain in charge until at least the end of next season, when his deal expires, but the club is developing a succession plan for when he does call time on his distinguished Gunners career.
That is a clear indication they believe their manager’s time at the club is drawing to a close and they are considering potential replacements.
Pep Guardiola was viewed as the ideal man, but the Spaniard has committed himself to Manchester City.
If Wenger, who earns £8million (Sh1.2bn) annually, remains at Arsenal next season, how the club start the campaign is likely to have a significant bearing on whether the board consider extending his deal or implement the succession blueprint.
Indeed, there are indications that Wenger is planning for a future at Arsenal beyond next season.
The manager has played a key role in improvements at the club’s London Colney and Hale End training bases, as well as the restructuring of the scouting system.
At least £70m (Sh10.1bn) will be made available to Wenger this summer to strengthen the squad. But another season without a sustained title challenge could result in Kroenke and Wenger taking a big decision in the summer of 2017, if the Frenchman has not walked away already.
In the shorter term, the Gunners fear convincing star duo Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez to sign new deals will not be straightforward.
Talks are underway with both players because they will enter the final two years of their contracts this summer.
The club had been confident Ozil and Sanchez would stay, but recent turmoil has raised fears the duo may look elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the underperforming Arsenal squad are facing up to losing millions of pounds in bonuses if they fail to qualify for the Champions League.
Arsenal are currently third in the table, just three points ahead of fifth-placed West Ham.