In Arsene the trust has begun to fade missing out on top four a real danger
Those Arsenal players happy to talk told how Arsene Wenger should never be questioned – but questions are being asked at the Emirates.
Three defeats in 2012 leave Wenger to contemplate the prospect of failing to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 15 years at the club.
Arsenal fans taunted Manchester United with ‘Thursday night, Channel 5’, but it was the Gunners who slipped deeper into a fight with Newcastle and Liverpool for a place in next season’s Europa League.
This is the reality fuelling the mutinous mood in N5 – and captain Robin van Persie being caught on camera shaking his head at Wenger’s decision to replace Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with Andrey Arshavin has not helped.
Disbelief: Van Persie questioned Arsene Wenger's substitution of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
The Gunners are five points adrift of the top four and as close to the bottom three in terms of points as they are to Barclays Premier League leaders Manchester City.
Seven years without a trophy is one thing, bidding farewell to the Champions League would be quite another. A major revenue stream will disappear and, as Liverpool are proving, it is not easy to breeze back in.
This basic fear is undermining support for Wenger, who is not used to hearing fans sing ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’, as they did when he substituted Oxlade-Chamberlain.
It seemed a hugely significant moment. ‘In Arsene we trust’ has always been the motto but the trust is shaken. Supporters who have lost faith in his ability to strengthen the team in the transfer market are now losing faith in his tactical acumen.
It was only a substitution but it seemed to represent a tipping point. Off went an energetic and enthusiastic teenager and on came the man dubbed the Premier League’s most uninterested player by Gary Neville.
Slipping away: Sir Alex Ferguson consoles Wenger after Sunday's game
The heretics are rising inside the Emirates and the sight of Van Persie’s dissent deepens the issue. It can only turn waverers against Wenger if they think the captain and best player has doubts.
With the players off on Monday, there was no clear-the-air chat but Wenger and Van Persie will speak on Tuesday, as they always do when the squad regroup after a game. The Dutchman has embraced his responsibilities since succeeding Cesc Fabregas as skipper and has an open relationship with his manager but his own future remains in doubt with only 18 months left on his contract.
He is unlikely to stay at the Emirates. Why should he if the team slide further from the top of the Premier League It’s not as if the Gunners can still claim to offer a role in a team playing beautiful football.
This is where Project Wenger has started to hit trouble. The original plan was for the club to grow its own talented starlets – or at least lure them from elsewhere in their teens and school them in the Arsenal way.
On his way Van Persie has just 18 months left on his contract
There were some promising signs until Manchester City sparked a pay explosion and altered the landscape.
The Gunners cannot keep players who can double their money elsewhere. In a way, the project has been a victim of its own success because it creates accomplished players designed for elite football.
Richer clubs simply wait for the next model to drop off the production line, which is precisely what Wenger has done to French clubs for years. Patrice Evra’s claims that Arsenal are no more than an academy team never rang truer.
Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy followed Thierry Henry, Ashley Cole, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor through the exit. Next, Van Persie and Theo Walcott. Then perhaps Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczesny and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Gone: Samir Nasri left for Man City in the summer
On the eve of the Manchester United game, when he claimed finishing outside the top four would be ‘disaster’, Wenger also said: ‘What is unfair is that the pressure on our wages is higher because of other clubs who do not look at the way they manage and pay huge wages. For us just to keep our players, we are pushed to the limit with our wages.
‘That is why financial fair play is needed. It is not only for the clubs to manage well. They can pay 10million a month if they can. But it’s the fact that the pressure they put on smaller clubs, who have less resources, is not sustainable.’
There are slivers of light in the gloom, like the return of Wilshere next month and Bacary Sagna. They will strengthen the team and perhaps help summon a dash for fourth.
But first for Wenger, an FA Cup fourth-round tie against Aston Villa on Sunday, then what appears a dangerous midweek trip to Bolton and an attempt to avoid four straight Premier League defeats.