Arsene Wenger suggested this week that he is “amazed I still have to answer these kinds of questions” when it comes to his future as Gunners boss.
He has presided over six defeats in 12 games since the calendar year turned. Arsenal are 27 points behind leaders Manchester City in the Premier League and ten adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham in the race for a Champions League place.
On Sunday his side were swept aside by Pep Guardiola’s Man City in the Carabao Cup Final at Wembley in a fashion that was close to embarrassment for the side from nearby north London.
Wenger’s last title win came in 2004, the majestic and unforgettable Invincibles run that brought the French boss his third Premier League gong in just eight seasons at the helm.
Much has changed since then. The Emirates has replaced Highbury. Roman Abramovich arrived at Chelsea and the Blues overtook Arsenal as top dogs in London, winning five titles since Arsenal last perched on top of the pile.
Money also became plentiful at Manchester City and they too were twice crowned champions in 2012 and 2014, while they will add a third this term barring a catastrophic collapse.
As things changed, they also stayed the same. Sir Alex Ferguson, the managerial sparring partner most closely associated with Wenger, would add a mammoth five further titles to his CV before retiring in 2013 having poached Robin van Persie from under the Frenchman’s nose to supply the goals that provided his last hurrah.
In the latest twist of the knife for Wenger, even their nearest rivals Tottenham have begun to lengthen their stride and go past Arsenal.
For nearly 14 years Arsenal have effectively been defined by their ability to finish in the top four and win the FA Cup on occasion.
Last season, even that staple diet of Champions League qualification was denied to Wenger.
All of it leads to those looking in at Arsenal FC from the outside to stand and wonder in amazement, how is Wenger still there to answer these very questions?
Wenger says keeping his job as Arsenal boss is his “last worry” going into an immediate rematch with Manchester City.
His 22-year tenure must surely be drawing to a close now in the wake of what looks a doomed race to get in the top four and Sunday’s oh-so comprehensive defeat to City at Wembley. Pep Guardiola and his team have become what Arsenal desired to be.
The chasm-like gulf between these clubs is illustrated even in the match betting. City, the visitors, are odds-on 20/27 favourites to win on Thursday. On their own patch, Arsenal are as big as 7/2 to collect three points while the draw is 3/1.
Arsenal have for too long been deemed a soft touch by their direct rivals. It seems to be a never-ending scenario that Wenger is charged with needing to add some bite – the Patrick Vieira type, say – into his team again.
When allowed to play their football, the Gunners are a delight. Engaged in a battle, they too often come up short, or get bullied.
Jack Wilshere said it was “hard to accept” some of the refereeing decisions against Man City in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley. As a neutral, it would require a monumental leap of faith to suggest that the officials were the factor that led to Arsenal’s demise on Sunday.
Surely the time for change is not avoidable this season and the Wenger era will be no more.
When time judges the Frenchman it will surely conclude that, unlike Ferguson, he could not continually change the jigsaw pieces to remould winning teams.
The 1997/98 double-winning cast and the 2004 Invincibles were wonderful achievements, but Wenger will also be tagged with the legacy of being unable to get beyond mediocre thereafter.
So, what of Thursday evening?
Man City are undefeated in their last five matches against Arsenal in all competitions. The Citizens have also scored at least two goals in six of their last seven outings against the Gunners.
Of course, scoring goals comes easy to City against most opposition these days, with Guardiola’s outfit having netted at least two goals in 17 of their last 20 matches in the Premier League. The leaders are 5/9 to score two or more in this contest.
There will be changes on the City roster almost for sure. Fernandinho suffered a hamstring injury at Wembley and is unlikely to feature – could that give Arsenal a chance to impose their will on the game?
Raheem Sterling missed the cup victory with a hamstring injury and remains a doubt, though Gabriel Jesus should now be fitter having reappeared off the bench on Sunday.
Nacho Monreal picked up an injury in the final and misses out, while Aaron Ramsey is likely to be a late call having returned from absence for Sunday’s contest. Wenger can at least count on January signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who was cup-tied.
There are some positives of course for the beleaguered Gunners. They are undefeated in 19 of their last 20 home matches in the league – though that reverse did come against another Manchester outfit.
Arsenal showed some steel in January when they ousted Chelsea in the Carabao Cup at the Emirates having fallen behind early doors.
Sunday’s defeat will surely have stung not just the manager, but the players. Wenger has called for a united front in this game, but even that might not be enough.
The current Arsenal squad too often plays as if they are past the point of no return with this manager and Wenger has proved unable to rescue the situation.
They might have the solace of a goal on home soil this time but given how readily Man City won on Sunday, it is hard to see a major turnaround and so at 11/1, the visitors can leave London with three points and a 3-1 win this time around.
For punters not willing to be so precise, the champions-elect are 31/20 to win the match with both teams to score and that also looks a fair bet.
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