After being sucker punched out of the FA Cup by Blackburn Rovers, Arsene Wenger could be facing up to the beginning of the end of his Arsenal reign. The club's greatest ever manager is facing his eighth season without a trophy, after letting another chance to end their drought slip away.
Nobody will care about the context of Arsenal's 1-0 defeat to Rovers. However, it was a sucker punch, delivered packing the full force of cruel irony. Because for all the times Arsenal have merited criticism for poor performances during their barren years, the Blackburn game was one where they were just plain unlucky.
East Stand, Turnstile J. Block 118 upper tier. Row 10, seat 760. That's where this author sat to watch events unfold at the Emirates Stadium. Having seen things as they happened, it's been shocking and a little disturbing, to read other match reports, actually claiming Rovers merited their win.
Take it from someone who was there, the Championship outfit were abysmal. Their star man, striker Jordan Rhodes, barely had a touch. The team as a whole, could hardly string three passes together without the ball going into touch.
If you choose not to trust this writer, then consider the following statistics. Arsenal mustered 20 shots at goal, compared to Rovers 5. They also produced 16 corners to Rovers 2. Arsenal enjoyed 71.4 % possession.
Now this author usually doesn't like turning to stats, as only one really matters. However, do these numbers really suggest, as some others have claimed, that Blackburn's lone goal was the result of territorial or attacking dominance? Of course they don't.
Any reasonable analysis of the game, and not one written with the motivation of bias or bitterness towards Wenger, would conclude Arsenal were undone by the ultimate smash and grab.
The truth is the Gunners squandered several glorious opportunities. The truth is that it took another goalkeeping blunder from the increasingly calamitous Wojciech Szczesny to gift Rovers the winner. The truth is that even after Szczesny's blunder, Colin Kazim-Richards, scuffed the rebound.
The bounce of the ball took it away from Thomas Vermaelen and onto the post and in. You could almost see the merciless hand of fate pushing Wenger closer and closer to the abyss.
Yet the problem for Wenger is that every failure to land a trophy is treated as part of one big malaise. The eight trophyless seasons are treated as a vacuum, almost as if they are the work of the same squad.
A torrent of boos at the full-time whistle has been heard often at the Emirates during these eight years. Indeed, they have been heard at other grounds as well. Yet rarely have they sounded as vicious as they did when Arsenal's elimination from the FA Cup was officially confirmed.
There was a deep, savage, sharpness to this particular chorus of discontent. The expressions of fans, distorted by anger, could have been scored with The Doors hit, "The End." Not many managers could survive this level of wrath. Wenger is fast running out of ways to appease the mob.
Trophies are the final judgement on a manager, particularly in the age of sound bites, short attention spans and instant analysis. Wenger finds it hard to identify reasons for optimism in this context and still retain some credibility.
This season is witnessing many of the staples of Wenger's excellence disappear. Defeat to Rovers was his first loss to lower-league opposition in the FA Cup. However, that's not the only Wenger hallmark that could slip away.
Usually he can hang his hat on finishing in the top four. The Frenchman boasts an outstanding record in this area. However, that face-saving and fiscally rewarding boon is in perilous danger this season.
Arsenal are four points off fourth with 12 games to go. Without a top four finish, fans will accuse Wenger of failing to fulfil his own minimum requirement for the club. That's a charge that heaps pressure on any manager.
If they fail to reach the top four, Wenger may have lost his last source of defence against his failings to land silverware.47381