Wenger sits in line of fire
Desperate mess at Arsenal will only worsen if veteran boss remains bullet-proof
THE agony was all over Arsene Wenger's face.
It was in his eyes and his words and the longer it went on the more you had to wonder who will crack first, one of the great football men of his generation or the club who so routinely hand him a vote of confidence?
We know that Arsenal is one place in football where such a gesture - the latest arrived bang on cue yesterday - is not a guarantee that soon you will be sleeping with the fishes. But this does little to dissipate the force of the question. Arsenal no longer work and each time the club pull the blinds down they slip a little further into a state of denial.
In the end it comes down to the matter of who and what they think they are - and whether there will ever be a time when they are obliged to show that degree of courage and decisiveness which separates the winners and the losers.
One great club, Liverpool, have shown a degree of that nerve with the appointment of Brendan Rodgers.
They have made a classic act of faith, and not without encouraging evidence. If Arsenal, for all their admiration for Wenger, do not see a similar need of their own now, when?
Many view Arsenal as the nearest thing in England to the new wave of Bundesliga football in their financial soundness.
But where is the ambition on the field? Where is the life force of a Jürgen Klopp, a coach of energy and adventure who has carried a young Borussia Dortmund among the Champions League favourites. Borussia are ranked fourth in the betting at 8-1, Arsenal are an afterthought at 33-1. It is a chasm - and it is getting wider.
For Arsenal, defeat by League Two Bradford was shocking enough but such ambushes happen from time to time. What they rarely illustrate so starkly, however, is the degree of the victim's decline.
Realistically, this was Arsenal's last chance of preventing their failure to win any kind of trophy stretching into eight years and this week's disaster inevitably provoked memories of the last time Arsenal squandered such an opportunity.
It was in the League Cup final a year last spring, when relegation-bound Birmingham City took the prize and a close-up of the expression of Cesc Fabregas, an injured spectator, said more or less everything you needed to know about the psychology of a club that had forgotten how to win.
It wasn't one of despair - that could be assuaged in Barcelona - but of resignation that all his precocious efforts had been in vain. Samir Nasri was heading off to the highest bidder. Now Theo Walcott appears to be taking almost identical steps to those which carried Robin van Persie to Manchester United.
This isn't so much a pattern as a dive over the cliff and is something beyond the power of any consolation provided by talk of laudable business plans and a refusal to be held up to ransom.
Arsenal, they may be reminded if they recall the days of Wenger's most beautiful, and unbeatable, creations, are a football team not a corporate ideal.
If football teams cease to excite, if they cannot paint any kind of picture of a vibrant future, they have failed in the most profound way. It is what is happening at the Emirates. The DNA of a winning team has gone missing. Arsenal's football is a parody of what it used to be.
The DNA has to be put back in place and the longer Arsenal delay the procedure the greater the task - and the more intimidating and discouraging the prospect for anyone who might be persuaded to replace Wenger. Each new vote of confidence delays the moment of vital re-appraisal - and makes more of a monster of the situation of the club's great servant.
If a vote of confidence is a gift it didn't seem to be one Wenger was enjoying in West Yorkshire. It seemed rather more another lurch into ordeal, another encounter with a sense that maybe the best days have not only flown but are irredeemable.
Of course he would not say that publicly, he might not even think it, but the evidence against him and his most recently formed team mounts relentlessly. After all the years of disdaining the League Cup, he came at near maximum strength. He had players like Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Lukas Podolski. Often enough they have shown thoroughbred lines but not now, not in a team that has won just one of its last six games. Now they looked like foot soldiers in a legion of the damned.
Wenger said they should not feel embarrassed because they gave everything they had. Embarrassment should only come when you haven't done your best, he snapped.
Also, maybe, when you are lost - and it's quite hard to remember what you used to be.