Richard Buxton: Wenger must know his time is up
Even victory over Man City won't mask the fact that the Arsenal boss is past his expiry date
Arsene Wenger should have heeded the warning signs a long time ago.
The Frenchman continues to reign above all at Arsenal, but events in recent history have served up reminders of his increasing vulnerability, ahead of Manchester City's visit tomorrow.
A month before his death, Brian Clough lavished praise on the Gunners manager after he broke Nottingham Forest's long-standing domestic record of going 42 games unbeaten.
That coming from the man who had once led a provincial club in the second tier of English football to the pinnacle of the European game in four years, and kept them there for a further 12 months, was the greatest compliment that Wenger could have possibly been paid.
But in that praise there was an inadvertent warning shot; there is only one way to dismount a lofty pedestal, and it is far from pretty.
Clough knew it best, having uneasily traversed the path that the Gunners' modern godfather is now navigating in his eventual Emirates Stadium endgame.
One of English football's most successful managers, Clough, in visibly deteriorating health, tearfully waved goodbye as his beloved club was condemned to EPL relegation. It showed how far he had plummeted in the 13 years since their second European Cup victory.
He was a faded relic; a reminder of what was once the benchmark but would never be again. A club that was once the vanguard of the game, similarly, stagnated beyond recognition with relations between manager and supporters reaching breaking point.
Wenger and Clough are alike in many ways, including having the freedom to govern autonomously, waved through by a rudderless hierarchy. Neither appeared to know when the time was right to bow out, to the detriment of both their once-polished standings and those of their respective clubs.
Wenger has faced such crossroads before, back in 2014. An FA Cup triumph ended a long-awaited silverware drought, despite Arsenal finishing seven points adrift of league champions City, and crashing out of the Champions League last-16 to Bayern Munich.
This, however, is uncharted territory. Arsenal have never finished out of the top four in Wenger's past 20 campaigns, but evidence of them continuing the streak this season remains in alarmingly short supply.
They lost six of their last 10 matches in all competitions, conceding 21 goals in that time, as Wenger continues to tease long-suffering fans that a decision on his future is imminent.
The fan base, firmly fractured by Wenger's planned longevity at the club, has taken its running battle into the skies, with opposing camps now unfurling contradictory banners from planes, further clouding the message towards the EPL's elder statesman.
Fears over the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Oezil have added to the sense of unease, with the former opening himself up to a potential defection to Chelsea. Expressing a desire to stay in London with a team that have a winning mentality pointed to one, inevitable conclusion.
Ashley Cole, Emmanuel Petit and Cesc Fabregas had little hesitation in swapping from red to blue in order to continue winning trophies in north London. The Chilean is unlikely to be any different.
The exodus may stretch beyond Stamford Bridge, too, with Hector Bellerin touted as Barcelona's eventual successor to Dani Alves. The act of selling players out of necessity has been replaced by a resignation that they can no longer match the ambitions of their most-prized assets.
Yet, Wenger carries on regardless, insisting that he will remain the master of Arsenal's destiny.
Even if they do somehow negotiate a way past City, both in the FA Cup semi-final and tomorrow's dress rehearsal, it will not salvage Arsenal's predicament.
Unlike Clough, Wenger must allow his head to overrule his heart before his once-unblemished reputation, too, lies in ruins.