In a weekend on which the behaviour of players and spectators is under close scrutiny, the reactions of a normally undemonstrative Emirates crowd will be of more than usual interest at Arsenal's FA Cup tie against Aston Villa this afternoon.
Arsène Wenger claimed on Friday that he is not bothered by adverse reaction from a minority of supporters. Yet however few booed the decision to send on Andrey Arshavin as the man to win last Sunday's game against Manchester United in place of the lively Alex Oxlade-Chamber-lain, chants of "You don't know what you're doing" at someone who has won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups (including two Doubles and an unbeaten League season) hinted at deep unrest.
The rather shocking condemnation did not, of course, stem from a single substitution, but was the culmination of what may soon be seven long years without a trophy. With an 18-point deficit in the League and a daunting Champions' League tie against Milan to come, the FA Cup clearly represents the best opportunity of ending the wait.
If Villa should be beaten, as they were by Arsenal at home a month ago, an apologetic chorus of "There's only one Arsène Wenger" might be expected. But if Villa, who perform better away from home, should show signs of adding to the home crowd's frustration, the manager's popularity may continue its descent to previously unthinkable levels.
There is even criticism from his admirers. Alex Fynn, a football consultant and author of the revealing Arsènal: The Making Of A Modern Superclub, counts himself as one of those but thinks that eight years on from The Invincibles, Wenger has become untouchable. "He's a genius of a manager but no man has a monopoly of the truth," Fynn says. "He's been allowed to assume too much power, which is difficult to take away from him now. There's nobody to challenge him, to tell him of things either on or off the field, 'Arsène, maybe you've got this wrong'."
In days of yore, David Dein, the club's influential vice-chairman, would have issued such a challenge as a friend and Arsenal fan. Keen to bring new money into a club that he believed placed too little importance on winning, he made the mistake in 2007 of backing the right horse – the American Stan Kroenke – at the wrong time, and of making overtures without the consent of the board. Within a year Kroenke was a director but Dein was no longer there to do what Wenger called "my dirty work for me" – with the agents to secure leading players.
With so much money having gone into the Emirates, Wenger was happy to accept budgetary limits and concentrate on developing younger players, apparently convinced that he could continue, in Dein's phrase, "to pull rabbits out of a hat". Intent on treating Arsenal's money as his own, he was not inclined to go the extra mile or pay the extra million, and players who could have made a huge difference, such as Xabi Alonso and Shay Given, remained unsigned.
Most fans understood the need to move, but since matchday revenues increased by £50 million a season – essentially from their pockets – the clamour for more to be spent on players has grown. "The club say they can't afford to match their rivals in terms of acquiring players, which is not true," Fynn argues. "They can afford it but choose not to because Arsenal have a self-sufficiency policy. Wenger is given a budget for transfers and players' wages and he has prioritised long-term contracts for young players rather than having the money for an exceptional player who would be on exceptional wages."
From a manager's point of view, this has the advantage of ready-made excuses about a young side: they are learning, they will make mistakes, next season they will be stronger. The disadvantages became apparent last summer: they tend not to win trophies, which in turn prompts the most ambitious and talented players to leave. Even if Wenger was privately resigned to Cesc Fabregas returning to Barcelona, the notion that Samir Nasri and Gaël Clichy should want to join Manchester City clearly shocked him. As he told L'Equipe: "You had a project with guys that you took on at the age of 18 and they leave at the age of 23. That's not what you dream about."
The dream is over, and now there is a potential nightmare in which Arsenal fail to finish in the top four. As Fynn says: "If they don't qualify for the Champions' League, there's a £25m hole, and if they continue with the self-sufficiency model minus that money, the model will have been shown not to work and the gap with their rivals will simply expand."
Arsènal by Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher is published by Vision Sports, £8.99.
Five things wenger has done wrong
He's not spending Arsenal's money
Once Jens Lehmann passed his peak and four centre-backs left in the same close season, supporters were crying out for quality reinforcements to be signed. Even when Arsène Wenger did spend, he seemed – unlike his rivals – to have an upper ceiling of £10m.
He had a poor summer's work
Having waited until the last week of the summer transfer window before allowing Samir Nasri to join Cesc Fabregas and Gaël Clichy in leaving, he suddenly went on an uncharacteristic splurge on five players, but only Mikael Arteta has proved himself.
He has preferred style over substance
At their best, Arsenal played the most aesthetically pleasing football outside Barcelona but even then tended to over-elaborate in front of goal. Now, to the fans' chagrin, they are not even the most attractive team in north London.
He is left with a lack of characters
It's a quiet team. Fabregas wasn't a demonstrative leader and Robin van Persie, like many striker-captains, often appears more concerned with his own game. There's no Gallas or Campbell, let alone an Adams or a Keown.
He lacks coaching back-up
In Pat Rice and Boro Primorac, Wenger has had the same coaching team since March 1997. Many feel a new face is required, especially for the defence, but Steve Bould remains the Under-18s coach.Reuse content