Arsenal have begun actively working on the succession plan to Arsene Wenger, ahead of his increasingly-likely departure this summer, but remain willing to give their longest-serving manager more time before a definitive decision is confirmed.
Friends and many club insiders fear that Wenger is now minded to stand down at the end of the season but, amid the rawness of a crushing 5-1 Champions League defeat against Bayern Munich, the Frenchman is being encouraged not to rush to any final decisions.
There is no sense that Wenger, who is 67, is ready to retire as a manager should he end his 20-year tenure and there would be no immediate role for him within Arsenal.
Violence broke out inside Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena on Wednesday night between Arsenal fans, amid angry exchanges over Wenger’s future, and club staff are preparing for the mounting probability this summer of change.
There are also renewed doubts over the future of Alexis Sanchez, with Paris St Germain currently favourites to sign the Chile striker amid his refusal to sign a new contract and very visible frustration at Arsenal’s form.
Wenger has always said that he would assess his own performance near the end of the season before coming to a final decision and, while he will fight on for now, the realisation that Arsenal are already highly unlikely to win either the Champions League or Premier League will heavily shape his thinking.
When he signed a new three-year contract in 2014, the feeling was that Arsenal were again in a position to seriously challenge to win the biggest trophies and move beyond simply Champions League participation. With the second leg against Bayern looming next move, they are on course for a seventh straight exit at the last 16 stage of the Champions League.
Wenger is also sensitive to the mood of supporters and the division that now exists over his future. Witnesses to some of the clashes among Arsenal fans on Wednesday night told The Telegraph that the atmosphere between supporters was the worst they had known. Wenger will be pressed on his future at his 9am press conference on Friday but is expected to again stress that no decisions have been made.
Speaking just hours before Wednesday’s match, he reiterated his repeated response that his future would be determined much closer to the end of the season. Asked by the German radio station ZDF when he would specifically decide, Wenger said: "March, April probably.”
Wenger has also said that he may take a very sudden decision – based on his “gut feeling” – and there is still a possibility that he will view the season very differently in May if the team finish strongly in both the Premier League and FA Cup.
Arsenal do expect Wenger to give them time to approach replacements but do not believe that there is any immediate urgent need for clarity.
A succession plan has been worked upon – and a list of names that include Thomas Tuchel, Max Allegri, Eddie Howe and Leonardo Jardim have been under active consideration – but no managers have been directly approached. Indeed, should the season somehow finish on a major high, the club would still be very open to honouring a new two-year contract that was suggested before Christmas.
Despite the uncertainty, Wenger has been actively working with the club on summer preparations, both on their transfer priorities and a pre-season tour to Australia and China. Arsenal also point out there is still more than a third of the Premier League season remaining. They are currently fourth, 10 points behind Chelsea, but in a pack with all the other leading contenders.
The club’s owner, Stan Kroenke, has also always been absolute in his support for Wenger and, in previous interviews with The Telegraph, has suggested that he would let his manager decide when it was right to step down.
Many of those closest to Wenger do now believe that he is approaching that decision but, in conversations with The Telegraph, their pessimism was also tempered by the recognition that he could feel very differently if he was able to oversee a miraculous turnaround.
Arsenal’s next match is at Sutton United on Monday night in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Wenger is expected to be without several leading players for that match, including Sanchez – who has been given some time off – and captain Laurent Koscielny, who is recovering from the thigh injury he suffered in Munich.
He must also decide whether to rest Mesut Ozil, who has been strongly criticised following the 5-1 defeat and a succession of largely anonymous performances.
Wenger’s loyalty to Ozil in his selection decisions is being privately questioned by some other players but the German’s agent believes that he is being made a scapegoat.
“Mesut feels people are not focusing on his performance; they are using him as a scapegoat for the team after bad results," Dr Erkut Sogut told BBC Sport. “Bayern had 74 per cent possession," said Sogut. “How can someone in the No 10 position create chances if you don't have the ball? In these games people usually target a player who cost a lot of money and earns a lot of money - that is Mesut. But he can't be always be the scapegoat. That's not fair.
"Football is a team sport and Arsenal are not performing well as a team. Eleven players were on the pitch but Mesut was singled out for criticism. It was as if everyone knew Arsenal would not make it through and we needed a scapegoat. This is not right. You win as a team and you lose as a team."