The biggest Premier League match of the weekend takes place this Sunday at the Emirates Stadium, when Manchester City and Arsenal clash in a match that has giant implications in the race for a top-four finish.
To preview Sunday's big game, I spoke to Paul DeBruler from The Short Fuse, SB Nation's Arsenal blog. We talked about Arsene Wenger's future, Sunday's match, and who will be the next Arsenal player sold to City. This was a really fun chat. Check it out below:
1 - There's no other way to start: What's your gut feeling about Wenger's decision? Is he going or staying? What do you want him to do?
PDB: This topic has, as you can guess, sucked a lot of oxygen out of the last couple months of the season. I'll address your questions in reverse order. First, what do I want him to do? That is the one that causes me the most heartache. I've been an Arsenal fan since before he was manager - not long, just a season or so, but I've watched Wenger since day one, more or less (it wasn't as easy to watch soccer in the US in the early/mid 1990's, you lucky kids!), and have on more than one occasion said that despite not knowing him personally at all, I love him more than I do at least one of my parents.
I was a fervent, strident Wenger defender long past the point where doing that was easy, but finally, around about February 2016, I came to the conclusion that I'd like him to leave. This is the third season in a row now that he has taken Arsenal to the top of the league(ish) in January, only to be out of contention by April, and the, what, seventh straight exit at the Round of 16 stage of the Champions League? What that tells me is that, despite bringing in the likes of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, Arsene Wenger's teams have a very hard ceiling, and in the absence of Wenger totally revising his style and approach to the game, which c'mon, that's never gonna happen...without that, Arsenal under Wenger will always be what they've been for the last three seasons.
I don't want him fired, though - I want him to leave on his own terms, so that appropriate statuary can be built and stands can be renamed and all that. He's earned every accolade that is coming his way, and I want to be the first to provide them - but unfortunately, in the last few seasons, his tactical inflexibility, stubborn refusal to adapt his playing style for the evolving game, and just general bloody-mindedness has proved more a hindrance than a help, and we're seeing patterns repeat themselves a lot more than we'd like. So I think it's time for him to go, and that fact makes me sad.
Is he going or staying? Honestly, I don't know. From the outside, it first seemed obvious that he's going - this season is playing out almost exactly like the last three, and the recent bad run of form has increased the volume of the shouts for Wenger to leave. But, the one thing about Wenger is that he'll never let on what he knows in his head - not to fans, not to journalists, and probably not to his team, at least not something like a decision about his future. It looked a month ago like it was almost certain he'd leave, now we're not so sure - and Stan Kroenke, Arsenal's owner, has previous history with retaining an unpopular coach but not announcing that retention until weeks after it was done (Jeff Fisher and the Rams), so it wouldn't surprise me at all if a contract was already in place but not announced yet.
My gut feeling? As I mentioned above, it's hard to know with Wenger. All I can say is if it were me in his position, I'd leave after the season because I don't need the stress of it all. But I also work a desk job for eight hours a day five days a week, so my tolerance for Wenger's lifestyle would be very limited and as a consequence I'd be an utter failure at what he does.
2 - Arsenal's form has been quite awful, and their recent wins came only against non-League opposition. What the hell happened?
PDB: I will keep this answer brief, to make up for the opus I wrote for the last question. I wish I knew. Ozil's been out of form, Sanchez isn't making any friends with his less-than-happy-go-lucky attitude towards losing, and there may be a bit of the players giving up on Wenger going on as well. All I know is this is the worst run in Wenger's tenure at Arsenal, and it's no fun. That said, the fact that it's taken a Wenger team 20 years to go through this bad patch...man, it's gonna be rough on more recent vintage Arsenal fans when they realize that top four finishes aren't a birthright.
3 - How crucial is a win against City in the top-four race? Is this the biggest game of the season?
PDB: In a word: very. Arsenal are currently six points behind fourth-placed Liverpool, and this is Arsenal's last match against a top four team this season. They do play Manchester United on May 7th, but the point is, Arsenal can't afford to lose to a rival for one of those four places, because they don't have any more chances to take points off one of them. And given how dodgy their form overall has been of late, we can't count on them picking up maximum points against "lesser" teams right now. I'm not sure it's the biggest game of the season, but it's certainly very important as a tone-setter for the rest of the year.
4 - Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez are the team's biggest stars and have been involved in a lot of speculation. Do you see them at Arsenal next season?
PDB: If I'm being honest, I don't. I'd rather keep Özil if keeping one of the two is an option, but particularly if this team limps to a sixth- or seventh-place finish this season, I see a lot of unhappy news coming out of the red half of north London this summer.
5 - Who is the next Arsenal player to be sold to City? (Sorry)
PDB: The only acceptable answer to this question is Francis Coquelin. But if you want a serious answer, I'd much rather see Alexis go up to the Etihad than have him end up at Chelsea.
6 - What's your prediction for Sunday?
PDB: I think it's a draw. You mentioned in your answers to me that Arsenal would need to match City's intensity in order to win, and I haven't seen that level of intensity from an Arsenal team in quite a while now, so I see this as being a very rough game for the home side. But I also think they have enough at home to keep it 1-1 or 2-2.