Are we witnessing Arsene Wenger's final act at Arsenal?

Posted by Iain Macintosh

Stuart MacFarlane/Getty ImagesIf Arsenal lose to Fulham this weekend, things will turn proper ugly for Arsene Wenger.

I like Arsene Wenger. I like the way he quietly pops into the press room like a well-to-do woodpecker on the hunt for grubs. I like the way he pauses before answering questions or just draws out his preceding "erms" and "wells," buying time while he tentatively sniffs for traps. I like his football and I like his reluctance to bankrupt one of England's proudest football clubs just to put monosyllabic £5 million-a-year twentysomethings on £6 million a year.

But I fear for him now. If Arsenal don't get a result against a very impressive Fulham side this weekend, we could be witnessing the final act of one of the Premier League's greatest managers.

It could, of course, go the other way. Arsenal could pull Fulham's pants down in front of everyone, make light work of Tottenham, skilfully eviscerate Montpellier, book a place in the next stage of the Champions League and go on to plunder six points from successive trips to Villa and Goodison Park. But, let us be honest, there really hasn't been an awful lot in recent weeks to support that kind of fluffy-headed optimism. In fact, recent weeks have suggested that quite the opposite is on the cards. Arsenal wobble horribly at the back, ship goals that would shame a pub team and, with remarkable consistency, fail to turn their possession into clear-cut chances.

We've been here before. I was at the Stadium of Light in February for both of Arsenal's FA Cup and Premier League matches against Sunderland. Those games were the bread to Arsenal's toxic sandwich, the filling being a horrible 0-4 defeat to AC Milan in midweek. Though the Gunners actually won the first game, albeit through a last-gasp Thierry Henry goal, they were relentlessly awful in every match. I wrote then that I thought Wenger's time might be drawing to a close. I said that his history at the club had earned him a "mulligan," one more chance to rebuild the team, but that if things hadn't changed by autumn, he'd have to accept defeat and leave.

Then, in a manner that will be familiar only to my increasingly wealthy bookmaker, Arsenal suddenly became the form team in England, derailed Tottenham's season and snatched back third place for themselves. But instead of building on that nine-wins-in-10-games streak, they've reverted to type, making that surge, and not the resultant poor form, look like the anomaly. There were early signs of defensive improvement, notably the clean sheet against school bullies Stoke, but the four goals that were conceded to Reading were enough to make a grown Steve Bould cry.

Since the departure of Henry, Wenger's time at Arsenal has essentially been one enormous ideological experiment. Could a club sustain themselves at the top with their own resources, adding only the occasional senior signing, preferring to work with their players from a young age to forge a distinct and successful style? Most said, no. Poppycock, said I. The likes of Clichy, Flamini, Fabregas, Song, Nasri and van Persie will all be pushing for honours before long. And I was right. I just should have been more specific.

This has been the greatest failure of the late Wenger era: the inability to accept that footballers will not stand and wait for epochal development, and the apparent surprise that loyalty is nothing compared to the all-conquering love some men have for the zeros on their pay cheque. In Wenger's head, in my head, in the heads of most Arsenal fans, the concept of aesthetically pleasing autarky was a bold and worthy plan. In reality, it would be frightfully hard to achieve, and it would get harder with every passing year.

Arsenal had their best shot at the title in 2008, when Eduardo's injury betrayed an emotional fragility best evidenced by William Gallas' sad little tantrum at St Andrews. They might have done better in 2009 had Wenger been able to see that Denilson was no replacement for Flamini and that Manuel Almunia was not the kind of goalkeeper with whom you could win a league. The 2009-10 campaign was compromised by no less than four instances of back-to-back league defeats, and more evidence of that continuing lack of mental strength came in 2011 when second-placed Arsenal beat Stoke on Feb. 23 and then won just two games from their final 11.

I like Wenger, and I am not alone in that. But no amount of residual affection will preserve his status if he can't turn this team around quickly. If Fulham fall on Saturday and the victory kick-starts another glorious run, there is no reason Arsenal can't close the gap on the early leaders. But if the Cottagers win and Wenger's bleak autumn becomes an even more barren winter, then I'm afraid this could be the end of an era.

Iain Macintosh is the UK Football Correspondent for The New Paper in Singapore and the co-author of "Football Manager Stole My Life" from @backpagepress. You can follow him on Twitter on @iainmacintosh

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