Arsene Wenger's boycott comments only widens rift with Arsenal fans
Arsene Wenger can pretend otherwise, but the thousands of empty seats at the Emirates on Tuesday showed there is still a widespread feeling among supporters it's time for him to step down.
Wenger's dismissive comments about the boycott after the game did little to change their opinions.
Wenger had a chance after the 2-0 win over Sunderland to address the fact that nearly 20,000 seats were empty during the game as fans who had paid for their tickets opted not to use them. He could have offered an olive branch to the section of the Arsenal fans who don't want him to sign a new contract this summer and felt the best way to express that opinion was by staying away en masse.
Instead, he stuck his head in the sand and pretended there wasn't an issue at all.
"It's Tuesday night against Sunderland, everybody expects us to win," he said in terms of an explanation for why nearly a third of the stadium was empty.
And then he added the line he used before the game, seemingly used as the rationale for why there's nothing to worry about: "We are sold out."
Technically, that's true -- although the announced figure of 59,510 tickets sold drew its share of derisive laughs in the press box when the actual attendance was closer to 40,000. And yes, the lowly opposition for a midweek game made this an easy game to skip.
But acting like there isn't a bigger issue that needs to be addressed is an own goal by both Wenger and the club -- especially as he looks increasingly likely to stay in charge for two more years no matter what happens over the past 10 days of the season. Wenger should be focusing on repairing the rift with supporters, not ignoring it.
The fans behind the boycott made it abundantly clear that Wenger's postgame statements had only added fuel to the fire.
"From our point of view, his comments are arrogant and dismissive, and that's nothing new from him," Mark Halfpenny, who helps run the fanzine Online Gooner, told ESPN FC.
Halfpenny was one of the instigators of the boycott, having also helped organise some of the previous "Wenger Out" protests before recent home games. And he said the message was mainly meant for owner Stan Kroenke, not just Wenger.
"The owner is the one person who can change this. It's quite obvious Arsene Wenger wants to stay on. But 20,000 empty seats should send a message to the owner that under this manager, this is what's going to happen," Halfpenny said.
"It's so frustrating that we are probably going to have two more years of a project that has failed over and over again, when other clubs are moving further away from us. But hopefully the message of 20,000 empty seats won't be lost on Stan Kroenke."
Peter Wood, who runs the Arsenal Opinion podcast and first hatched the boycott idea on his Le-Grove blog, had even stronger words about Wenger's attitude.
"Another example of Wenger's utter contempt for the concerns of the fans, and another example of his decaying ability to ever accept accountability for his shoddy work," Wood told ESPN FC.
"There is no higher form of dissent than abstention for a season ticket holder. Will it be enough to move Wenger on? Doubtful, but in staying away, the fans made the loudest noise possible for him heading into contract talks."
The Arsenal Supporters Trust, which has called for Wenger to step down, also criticised the Frenchman for not acknowledging the seriousness of the situation.
"Once again Arsene Wenger appears off message compared with the Arsenal Boardroom and Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis. Gazidis has previously told the AST that he views every empty seat as a 'tragedy' and has committed to tackling this through initiatives such as am improved ticket exchange," an AST spokesman said in a statement.
"The massive no show last night demonstrates the strength of feeling amongst fans and just how fed up they are. The club need to reflect very carefully on the empty seats, and other forms of feedback, and make sure that fans are given the substantive change the majority now want."
Most of the fans who stayed home on Tuesday are expected to be back for Sunday's Premier League finale against Everton, when Arsenal could still sneak into the top four with a win if Liverpool drop points against Middlesbrough. And don't expect many empty seats for next weekend's FA Cup final against Chelsea at Wembley.
A victory in that game would certainly strengthen Wenger's case for staying in charge for two more years and perhaps even win some of the disenchanted fans back over. But if he ever really wants to heal the rift with supporters, he'd do well to start taking them a bit more seriously first.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.