If Arsène Wenger was a field general rather than one of the most distinguished football managers ever to look as though he had reached his wit's end, his situation would be much more ruthlessly appraised. This would be, it has to be said, in the unlikely event that it had not already been resolved.
As it stands, there is a compelling case that he is suffering from a severe dose of battle fatigue – and that his leadership is in previously unimagined disrepair.
Inevitably, there is hard talk of him being relieved of his command. Yes, it sounds like sacrilege but the unavoidable truth is that however sublimely he has disguised the fact down the years, Wenger (right) is not a god. He is a working football manager, who, no more than his most obscure rival, cannot be detached from the most basic demands of the job.
This, certainly, is the brutal truth after the home defeat by Liverpool and all the other fast accumulating evidence that his Arsenal team have never before come into a new season quite so ill-prepared for serious competition. It means that, with their place in the Champions League imperilled in Italy this week and a potentially Doomsday visit to Old Trafford at the weekend, Arsenal have reached the point of not the unthinkable but the unspeakable.
They have to say what most of football, when you strip away the respect that naturally flows toward 15 years of uniquely passionate and brilliant work, has been thinking for some time. They have to say that the future of the great Wenger at Arsenal can no longer be guaranteed. They have to say that all the insight, yes, all the genius, and the loyalty that led him to reject sumptuous offers from Real Madrid, Manchester City and Paris St-Germain, must submit to another reality.
This is the one that has always mattered most in football, one that has never allowed even the highest achievers more than a season or two of respite. It is the reality of now, the shape and momentum of your team, the quality of its confidence and leadership and, ultimately, its ability to answer the most important question of all – the one that demands to know if it is going anywhere of significance any time soon.
This is where we encounter the chief weakness of the argument that Wenger, having pampered the ingrate Arsenal fans for so long with superb football, is beyond reproach, or certainly any serious questioning of his position. There is not much wrong with Arsenal, say his defenders, but of course there is.
Arsenal are failing to deliver anything like the promise of Wenger's best work. They are plainly struggling to maintain, let alone enhance, their position among the elite of the English game and those who say the Arsenal fans should be happy with what they have, however reduced it is, are showing as little grasp of football as human nature. Wenger created a certain appetite for both style and success. He served filet mignon and now the customers are paying the same for much lesser fare. Of course they are bitter. Football fans do not rationalise the ebb and flow of life. If they are given the highs once provided by someone like Wenger, they do not store them against the possibility of less uplifting days. They become addicted and if their habit is disrupted of course they will look soon enough for a new dealer.
Though Wenger's most recent conqueror, Kenny Dalglish, was quick to say the right, fraternal things, speaking of his "fantastic" contribution, and though it was true Arsenal were weakened by injury and suspension, the verdict on Saturday could scarcely have been more damning.
You could taste the doubt. It was everywhere – and nowhere more graphically expressed than in the demeanour of Wenger. He said he didn't know the status of Samir Nasri's proposed move to Manchester City. He wasn't stubborn in refusing to sign new players, simply in pursuit of value for money. Pressure? "I always have pressure. It is usual." He though the result was harsh and later he bemoaned the fact that for months Arsenal had been suffering bad refereeing decisions, bad luck. Wenger says that when Gervinho, Song and Emmanuel Frimpong are out of suspension and Jack Wilshere is fit again everything will be fine – or at least something resembling a little less the approach of Armageddon. He said, with obvious feeling: "There is no chance I will walk away. There is only the chance that I will try to give my best for the club. We live in the circumstance where every defeat is absolutely a disgrace... but we are at the start of the season." This, of course, is not the least of the problem. For the last six years despair has taken a little longer to settle in.Reuse content