Arsene Wenger has looked as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders in the last few weeks, and now the Arsenal manager has admitted that this has been his toughest season at the club.
Considering that the Frenchman has been in situ since 1996, that is quite a claim.
Yet in none of Wenger's previous 15 years in charge has his side suffered such a dramatic dip in form as the current run of two wins in 11 games that has ended their hopes in the Champions League, FA Cup and Carling Cup, and allowed Manchester United to move nine points clear of them at the top of the Premier League.
And ahead of this afternoon's visit of Alex Ferguson's men, Wenger says that although this side have produced Arsenal's best football of the last five years, their collapse has been hard to bear.
"It is certainly the year when I have worked the hardest," admitted Wenger, whose agitated touchline antics have been picked over by armchair psychologists in recent weeks.
"Every year has been tough, but for the team it has been the toughest. But over the last five years this has been the highest quality we have produced. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We have not lost against a low-level team. In the FA Cup we have lost away to Man United just three days after playing in Barcelona. So I give this team a lot of credit. We have battled on all fronts and we have produced quality. We just couldn't finish the job."
Yet Wenger has faced criticism that his young side will never finish the job as long as they rely on players such as Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie, 23 and 27 respectively, to provide the leadership normally expected of their elders. The side that lines up against them today, for example, could include Edwin van der Sar, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, who have a combined age of 113.
But Wenger insists his beliefs will ultimately lead to success, and prefers to believe that Arsenal lacked only a little luck in the big moments, rather than any element of leadership or experience.
"At the moment I do not want to focus too much on what we miss," said Wenger when asked if his side missed a figure such as Barcelona captain Carles Puyol. "They [the current Arsenal side] are very close. We need to strengthen some areas but we have the quality. At the moment we have to face some scepticism, but we have to keep believing in our strengths.
"The team has accumulated a lot of experience despite their age. They are on average 23, but football-wise they are 26 or 27. I gave them a chance to play at a young age and I don't regret that. Maybe I could have got some more experienced players, but it is too easy to say that. Now we need to focus on what we have and there is no need to add any negatives to our situation. Let's finish our season with pride and we will try to add to our team what we can."
Sunday Indo Sport