The game is up for Wenger as ruthless rivals trample all over his dream finale
Published 20/08/2016 | 02:30
At times this week it seemed that a terrible truth of the football life had entered the bones of Arsene Wenger.
It is the one that insists there are defeats, heavy defeats, and then sometimes there are those which make you wonder if the game - your game - is finally over. They ask if you have, truly, anything left of the best of your work.
The spectre of this reality, the epitaph on so many gravestones of even the most distinguished careers, has surely already written itself across the new season.
It is bearing the name of Wenger and causing the most intense speculation so far that he is close to the end of his 20-year tenure at Arsenal.
For a decade Wenger has suffered far more of those de-stabilising defeats than he cares to remember but each time he has re-surfaced with the aggrieved expression of, if not a martyr, then someone whose vision and priorities have been gravely misunderstood.
His position has grown progressively harder to maintain since his last title success with Arsenal in 2004 - and defeat in the Champions League final against Barcelona two years later which left a wound that will probably never heal.
Now it is teetering near collapse. It has meant that this week the grieving and the angst has maybe never carried such a sense of the terminal. He has delivered pleasing football with unbroken Champions League participation but for many of Arsenal's supporters this is no longer nearly enough.
Liverpool's firestorm of a victory at the Emirates last weekend re-awakened a thousand demons. Defeat at Leicester today would, for still more critics, surely mark a new low in credibility for one of the great figures in the story of the Premier League.
The problem for Wenger is no longer just the exhaustion provoked by the idea that once again there will be a day when he will get it all perfectly right - as in his glorious unbeaten season with such Invincibles as Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires.
The new dimension is the formidable cast of rivals who have been paid huge sums on the most basic assumption that they understand they have neither the luxury of time nor executive patience.
Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and, most shatteringly for Wenger, Jurgen Klopp have come into the new season running as hard and as tough as at any point in their careers of mega success - and rewards.
Against their ambition - and their ruthlessness - the waiting game of Wenger's best hopes suddenly looks like a relic from another age.
At Manchester City, Guardiola has simply made a bonfire of Joe Hart's illusions that he was somehow much bigger than the sum of his week-in, week-out contribution to a team which has so drastically under-achieved. Guardiola has said that Hart's work has been too uneven, too unreliable, has been deficient in an area which for him has always been a great imperative - accurate distribution.
It is not easy to imagine a more declarative statement of a leader's intentions. If he can treat the iconic Hart as just another football soldier, it says that no-one is immune from the most searching analysis of their performance.
When Hart endured a similar crisis of form a few years ago, former City keeper Joe Corrigan - a man famed for the zeal of his self-improvement in the great team of the late '60s - called England manager Roy Hodgson with a message for the suddenly troubled goalkeeper.
Corrigan, who won six England caps under the shadow of two of the nation's greatest goalkeepers, Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence, offered to sit down with Hart and discuss his thoughts on the best way to manage the ebb and flow of confidence so influential in the goalkeeper's life.
After 10 years as goalkeeper coach with Liverpool, he might just be able to help. So he left his telephone number with the England coach.
Corrigan's phone never rang, and now Hart has discovered that the world in which he so recently seemed so secure has become a much harder and less forgiving place.
Guardiola shook Hart to the foundations of his confidence and sent out a chilling message to City's squad of multi-millionaires. You adapt to his needs, or you face the prospect of re-making your career.
At Manchester United, Mourinho consigned the great Bastian Schweinsteiger to the wilderness beyond the first-team squad.
At Chelsea, Antonio Conte has targeted the brilliant Eden Hazard as a prime case for self-improvement.
At Liverpool, Klopp, Wenger's opening-day persecutor, has made it clear that the next few games could shape entire playing careers.
Meanwhile, Wenger discusses the agonising dilemma of whether to cut short the summer holidays of his star forwards Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud after their European Championships. He also frets about starting his £35m Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka, who he has already described as a natural leader.
Sometimes it is hard not to believe that Wenger still has the idea that ultimately he can make his football world stand still. But of course he can't and the folly of not believing this has perhaps never looked so hazardous.
This was Wenger preparing for the trip to a Leicester City, whose title win still seems to fill him with a degree of disbelief: "What I fight against is saying the only way to win is to buy. But it is maybe only right when you buy well.
"We are not scared to spend the money. In the end it is about the quality. I think this club has been built on that.
"I know everyone is questioning our transfer policy because we have not done as much as they would wish.
"I have done over 400 transfers but today you are not the only person to decide on them."
This, of course, is the truth. But it's threatening Wenger's chances of surviving another year because flirtation with success in this football world, however sustained and beguiling, can never have been less satisfying.
The foreplay, for Wenger, is surely at an end. He never faced such a requirement to win it all.