In brighter times at London Colney you would pull into Arsenal's training ground on a Friday expecting to see magicians arrive for work.
The frisson generated by Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry or Cesc Fabregas sweeping into the car park has given way to a sense of regression as the Gunners attempt to improve on their worst league start for 20 years in today's north London derby.
Whether Arsene Wenger's glorious vision of talent cultivation has expired or merely struck a rough patch will be more apparent after Arsenal have confronted Spurs at the Emirates Stadium. But Wenger stays true to his dream. The clue is in his answer to a question about how he would feel if Theo Walcott left for a rival club.
"If that should happen we'll replace him with someone, another big name – make another big name," Wenger said. The important word there is "make".
Arsenal did not make Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Andre Santos, Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla, Gervinho, Olivier Giroud or many other of this year's frequent starters. Arsenal have changed fundamentally to become a team of hired guns.
The shock to the system from losing Robin van Persie, Alex Song, Fabregas, Samir Nasri and others in recent years has forced Wenger into emergency purchases to fill gaps and inject experience. Mass assimilation is proving much tougher than expected.
This is Arsenal's worst start since 1982-83, when they scraped together 14 points from the first 11 fixtures. Now, they are eighth in the Premier League, a point behind Spurs, who have never finished higher than their north London rivals in Wenger's 16 years in charge.
With tension mounting at the luxury theatre of the Emirates, Wenger has instructed his players to rise above the growing grumpiness of supporters.
"We have to deal with the crowd. That's our job. We are professionals," he says. "We cannot say we are professional if we are affected by any reaction of the crowd. If you want to be a top-level professional you have to understand the crowd wants you to win and you have to deal with the fact that they're not always happy. That's where you see the personality and the sense of responsibility of the player."
The downside of "making" stars, Wenger has learnt, is that they might leave for a club with a higher wage structure and better trophy count, though he might think he already has the ideal replacement for Walcott should contract talks break down: the 17-year-old German, Serge Gnabry who, along with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Francis Coquelin and others, confirms the enduring power of the club's scouting network.
But Arsenal fans are now so fed up with waving off their idols and watching anodyne performances that they probably need a memory-jogging list of players to jeer. "Yes. You think I'm not fed up? I want them to stay as well," Wenger says.
"Look, what affects me is that our fans are not happy. It doesn't stop me from doing what I do on the football pitch, but if you ask me, my biggest desire is to see our fans happy – like the players as well.
"I understand the logic of it. It's not that the guys are against you as an individual. They want you to win the game and you represent the guy who can make them happy, so that's part of it, but we haven't done too badly and we'll do well again. We have finished every year in a good position."
If last season could be conjured back to life Arsenal could use today's clash to revive the present campaign, which sends them to Montpellier on Wednesday needing a victory to steady their Champions League ambitions. In February, Spurs led 2-0 at Arsenal's ground and were coasting to a 13-point lead before Wenger's men retaliated with five strikes. The catalytic effect of that 5-2 win helped keep the Wenger boot on Tottenham's head.
He says: "We were 2-0 down and (Gareth) Bale had a 3-0 ball that he didn't take. We were a little bit on the ropes for the first part of the game, then we managed to come back and win in a convincing way. Our main target is not to finish above Tottenham. Our main target is to finish at least in the top four. To be in the top four, it's important to beat Tottenham."
As Cazorla traipsed back from Panama without playing any part in Spain's friendly match there, Wenger reeled off recent or longer-term injuries to Giroud, Arteta, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gibbs, Sagna, Wojciech Szczesny and Abou Diaby, who is running again but will not play for another three weeks. "I think we need a few doctors this morning," Wenger grumbled.
"We know that we're on the way up. We had a bit of an unlucky result against Fulham (3-3, with a blown two-goal lead). But we did okay at Schalke (2-2, with a similar lead surrendered).
"I felt at 2-0 up against Fulham we were too cautious offensively and we started to be too protective about our game. We wanted to do well. We wanted just to win our game. We know after a Champions League game the most important thing is to win. And at 2-0 up the players wanted to protect the win. That's the best way to be in danger, especially against a team like Fulham who are good going forward."
This 'Wengerian' habit of digging out encouragement from disappointment reflects the manager's unfailing loyalty to his players and his own optimistic nature. Increasingly, though, he is staking his future as Arsenal manager on players who have been shaped and educated elsewhere.
More than at any time in his 16 years, Arsenal are a team thrown together through expediency, rather than the product of a grand design. The classic fluency of their attacking play has been lost in this mix.
Andre Villas-Boas, the Spurs manager, has image problems of his own but Wenger warns: "They are a team who have lost two creative players in (Rafael) Van der Vaart and ( Luka Modric). They are more robust physically, more strong in the impact of the contacts and still very dangerous on the counter-attacks and the flanks with Bale, Lennon, Adebayor, Defoe. They are quick, dangerous and sharp.
"They are a good side, a dangerous side and quite physical, with Sandro, and (Tom) Huddlestone, now who plays in the middle."
On his own side Wenger is relieved to have Jack Wilshere back and has no issues with England's use of him in Sweden: "You have 60 million people and 60 million national coaches in England, like everywhere. Yes, of course, I am happy with Jack's fitness. He had not played for 17 months and the fact that he just has got over the first three, four games without any setback is very important. Jack arrived here at the age of nine years old and that means this (derby) game is in his heart, in his brain, for the whole season every year."
That old Arsenal spirit and character, which Wilshere exemplifies, is in no need of further dilution from a season of limp performances and an eighth-place finish.
"We have to keep playing well and going forward," Wenger insists. "It's our philosophy." He will not budge. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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