As the final whistle beckoned at the Etihad on Sunday, Arsène Wenger cut a disconsolate figure as he berated goalkeeper Petr Cech for taking a short free-kick as Arsenal desperately sought an equaliser from a match they should never have lost.
Arsenal are in freefall, back-to-back defeats in the Premier League with just three wins in the last seven. Second place and on Chelsea’s heels, the Gunners are now fourth and in Tottenham’s sights.
Wenger’s own fate is intertwined with that of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, with the Frenchman apparently unwilling to sign the new contract on offer from the club until the ‘star’ players have done the same.
The question Arsenal must answer is whether arguably the most successful manager in the club’s history has reached the end of his shelf life?
Sunday’s performance suggested that the club must be close to calling time on his career.
Arsenal went into the game unbeaten at the Etihad since they crashed 3 – 6 in 2013. Indeed, before the weekend, that was their last defeat against Manchester City in competitive or friendly fixtures. The Gunners were in form against their nouveau riche rivals and confident of continuing their string of good results.
In the Premier League – home or away – the Wenger template against City has been the antithesis of his football philosophy. Possession was ceded willingly and the Citizens were sucker-punched at every opportunity. It’s the footballing equivalent of rope-a-dope and City couldn’t cope with it.
On Sunday, Wenger varied it slightly. This time there was no Olivier Giroud to play as a target man and to hold the ball up while support arrived. Arsenal’s success this season has been based around Alexis Sanchez as a central striker, linking with the midfield and his attacking colleagues.
A short passing game for which the north London club are renowned throughout the footballing world. Sanchez exploits defensive uncertainty by dropping deep to pick up the ball and turn provider.
That template provided Theo Walcott with Sunday’s opening goal, latching onto Alexis’ pass to calmly side foot his shot past the advancing Claudio Bravo. As the half wore on, Arsenal picked off City at will with Pep Guardiola exasperated by his side’s inability to get even the basics right.
Inexplicably though, Arsenal turned to the long-ball game. Sanchez became an increasingly peripheral figure in the game while Mesut Özil and Alex Iwobi received criticism for their performances; they were never involved enough to give the Gunners attacking intent.
A major problem became quickly evident. Petr Cech, at one point Arsenal’s leading pass maker, found his distribution lacking. Kicks were wayward, throws gained too much air. The once imperious goalkeeper looked like a man betrayed by age.
Or a lack of understanding as to what was required of him.
With the array of attacking talent and City’s vulnerability, this was a stunning volte face. For a manager who regularly berates opponents for not playing football, the Frenchman’s choice of tactics beggared belief. So did the team selection; Wenger got it hopelessly wrong up front.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain apparently had a muscular injury which prevented him playing from the start but it seems a weak excuse when the England international came on as a late substitute for Alex Iwobi. If there was a genuine injury, Sanchez on the left and Giroud centrally suited the tactics better.
It’s not the first time that Wenger’s decision-making has been called into question.
Technically gifted, Arsenal are tasked with playing football the ‘right way’ by their manager. Increasingly however, Wenger’s beliefs are being routinely exposed. His record against Mauricio Pochettino is one of draws. A man who has seen off a dozen Tottenham managers is struggling against the latest incumbent.
His tribulations against Mourinho’s sides are well-documented and Sunday was another away defeat against a Guardiola side. The Frenchman has never won an away game against the Spaniard.
Add to that list Jürgen Klopp and now Ronald Koeman. Younger managers are routinely outwitting the old master and there’s no sadder sight in football than a great manager continuing in a role for a season or two too long.
His habitual failure in Europe is a millstone Wenger wears around his neck and there is a feeling that having missed the boat last season, the Premier League is going the same way.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Last season’s valedictory title never arrived and there’s a genuine feeling that Wenger won’t emulate Sir Alex Ferguson in departing the scene a champion. In a perverse way that would be in keeping with their relationship; Wenger never quite able to match the Scot’s record.
The danger for Arsenal is that Wenger will sign another contract with them. Whilst Stan Kroenke, the club’s absentee majority shareholder, will be happy to pay a manager who routinely increases the value of his investment, the likelihood is that the club would be forced by supporter dissent into sacking a manager that the board revere.