The question has nibbled at the consciousness of the game ever since Manchester United failed to compete seriously with Arsenal last season, but this week it comes to the surface full-blown and unavoidably.
Has the most successful manager in the domestic history of English football lost it, and if he has, what is it precisely that has gone? The sight of Sir Alex Ferguson raging on the touchline - and arguing angrily with his young Scottish protegé, the Everton manager, David Moyes - is not in itself remarkable. Indeed, it could in some form have been conjured from any point in his extraordinary march to unprecedented dominance.
But in football, as in life, context is everything and the one in which you had to place Ferguson and his team on Wednesday night at Goodison Park could scarcely have been less encouraging.
Ten days after a defeat at Norwich that shook him to his bones, Ferguson, his latest European and Premiership hopes long buried, argued that his team lacked protection in Everton's 1-0 victory. But when did Manchester United have to plead for the protection of a referee? Don't they do their own refereeing, didn't they leave Arsenal's Arsene Wenger white-faced with indignation after muscling and - the Arsenal manager alleged - 'diving' their way to the victory in the notorious Pizzagate last October? The answer to that first vital question is that they need a helping hand only when they have lost their power to control events.
That wasn't true when they overwhelmed Arsenal in the second game, at Highbury, when they came roaring through to win with absolute conviction. But that was a game that didn't require the old motivating genius of Ferguson. The tunnel was swimming in United adrenalin when Roy Keane faced down Patrick Vieira before the kick off. There were so many old scores to settle in that game the numerically challenged might have called for an abacus.
This brings us to the core of the question about the great man who must be filled with angst whenever he gets up the nerve to review this season's latest failure to set an agenda anywhere beyond the FA Cup.
This season, as in the last one, his team have been competitive, at least in England, only when the challenge has been out front and obvious. There has been no shortfall of commitment and bite when Arsenal and Chelsea have been in the firing line. But again United's season has unravelled against much inferior opposition.
Last season they lost at dead-and-gone Wolves. This time they have reeled from defeat at a well organised but seriously under-manned Portsmouth - a week after the besmirched glory of Pizzagate -, a momentum-stopping draw at Fulham and now we have seen the agony induced by losses at Norwich and Everton.
It is here that we have the unnerving pattern. It suggests that Ferguson's old capacity to shape the course of a season, to maintain the consistency of effort and performance which marked Arsenal's superb undefeated season and Chelsea's emergence, continues to dwindle. The loss of competitiveness at the highest level against teams outside of domestic rivalary was surely underlined in the failure against Milan in the Champions' League. In the end it was profound, both in terms of tactics and motivation.
When Ferguson raged at Moyes - incomprehensibly, said the expression of the recipient - and complained about the referee, was he maybe deep down mourning his own crisis in the eternal battle to shape events? One of his problems is currently insuperable unless the budget strings at Old Trafford are loosened in a quite spectacular way. The physical decline of Roy Keane means that he can no longer provide the old leadership in midfield. Now, when Keane raises his fists to the heavens, when he rebukes his younger colleagues for their self-induglence, the audience is no longer bound to pin back its ears. No more is he the ultimate warrior-spokesman for a conquering army.
Of course Ferguson still has great nerve, but then how long can it absorb the accumulation of disappointment? His investment in Wayne Rooney, which is said to be the reason why he has no further options in the market, was a necessary step. Any football man of authentic ambition who could produce the means had to move for the greatest talent thrown up in these islands since George Best. But unfortunately Rooney, and the Portuguese wunderkind Cristiano Ronaldo, can do no more than inflict their talent, albeit spectacularly enough from time to time, on a constantly shifting stage.
While leadership and hard commitment underpins almost everything Chelsea do - despite Arsenal's lovely rhythmic start at Stamford Bridge this week, who would you have wanted your money on in the last 20 minutes? - Ferguson waits desperately for something more than the bankable commitment of Keane.
Mourinho, by comparison, has so many plainly functioning parts in a football machine - Terry, Lampard, Cech, Makelele, and not lest Carvalho - are all relentless in their commitment. By comparison, Rio Ferdinand, grossly at fault when Everton scored their vital goal, has serial collisions with Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon as he pushes up the anti in his contract negotiations.
For Ferguson, Wednesday night seemed disturblingly close to a breaking point. When he raged it seemed to be a matter of despair rather than the old one-eyed insistence that the world should bend itself to the will of himself and his team.
No doubt the baiting of players from the terraces has reached disgusting levels - and anyone who attended the recent Cup tie between Everton and United at Goodison Park did not need telling that the atmosphere on Wednesday night would again be impregnated by at least a degree of malignancy - but the action of Gary Neville was astonishing in its lack of responsiblity. Kicking the ball at a spectator guaranteed only one consequence, and now Neville, one of United's most experienced and admirably committed players, is missing for three games. Paul Scholes' crude lunge at Kevin Kilbane made certain another unwelcome suspension.
Recently Old Trafford's chief executive David Gill was nagged into the admission that every manager, including the great Ferguson, was ultimately sackable. Rightly, the subsequent furore was dismissed in some quarters as a non-story. Sacking him might not be a viable option, it might even be a travesty, especially in the wake of an FA Cup final of geniune intrigue and expectation against Arsenal. But then this wasn't the big question in the high emotion of Goodison Park.
The most relevant one lay intriguingly in the eulogy of Ferguson put out by Sir Bobby Charlton yesterday.
He said, "The only way we would ever be separated from Sir Alex Ferguson is if he decided. He is the best manager who has ever been - certainly in England. We have no reason to change." This, neatly, respectfully, returns the question to the man himself. Three years ago, like the great golfer Walter Hagen, he announced it was time to smell the flowers - or maybe the bouquet of a fine Claret - away from the arena of football he once made almost a personal possession. Then he changed his mind. The picture from the Goodison touchline says that maybe, at the very least, it could be time to think again.Reuse content