There is probably no better account of a leader in decline than the depiction Gabriel Garcia Marquez gives of the final days of Simon Bolivar in The General in his Labyrinth. The great liberator is seen as exhausted and paranoid, clinging ever more desperately to the doctrines that made him great even as he drifts down the Magdalena toward death. Soccer managers tend not to have sufficient longevity for their decline to achieve such an epic feel, but the protracted misery of Arsene Wenger does. All great men, perhaps, are doomed to slide into self-parody.
The early Wenger was a pragmatist. He had what, at the time in England, were idiosyncratic views on nutrition (which can be summarized briefly thus: broccoli good; beer bad), but he recognized what he had inherited in the legendary back four (Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn), and used that as a base as he won the league in his first full season. The title in 1997-98, lest we forget was won on the back of an improbable run of 12 clean sheets in 14 games. That Arsenal was as implacably remorseless as anything delivered by Herbert Chapman or George Graham, whose methods were more overtly results-driven.
As time has passed, though, as he had success and began to be revered as a guru in his own right, Wenger has become increasingly insistent on playing his way, which is to say in a manner that delights the eye but seems almost to regard defending as distasteful. There was a period four or five years ago, as Sol Campbell creaked to the end, when it seemed that Wenger heard the calls for a new center back and a new holding midfielder and decided willfully to ignore them as though to assert the supremacy of his method over the ideas of outsiders. Only now, as the reluctance to bring in new talent goes on, does the possibility that he was acting under severe financial restrictions become credible.
Defeat to Sunderland in the FA Cup on Saturday, sounding the knell on what is likely a seventh straight season without a trophy, seemed particularly cruel, for Sunderland, at least since Martin O'Neill took over, is precisely what Arsenal is not. It is a band of moderately talented players who are supremely organized and highly committed, a side for whom, at the moment, it's sufficient to say, "We'll stop you playing," because such is its confidence and sense of purpose that an even game is a won game. Look at the individuals in Arsenal's lineup and imagine them playing with the same ferocity as Sunderland; it might not win the league, but the top four would be guaranteed.
The problem is that Arsenal -- that is, Arsenal the psychological emanation as formed by fans, directors and journalists -- cannot look beyond its own decline. Sunderland is fired by thoughts of what could be, while Arsenal cannot but look at Mikel Arteta and remember Cesc Fabregas. It cannot but look at Tomas Rosicky and recall Samir Nasri. And that's if it's only employing short-term memory. Sebastian Squillacci or Sol Campbell? Andrey Arshavin or Robert Pires? Kieran Gibbs or Ashley Cole?
The Arsenal project was idealistic and it was predicated on success. Stay here, it said to players, and you may not make the best money in the world, but you will win trophies in a thrilling style. Mathieu Flamini was the first to call Wenger's bluff, leaving for AC Milan in 2008. Until then, those who had left Arsenal had gone at Wenger's behest, either because they weren't good enough or because they were at the peak of their market valuation. Flamini went, though, despite Wenger, seeing better money and a greater chance of success elsewhere. He was the first of a wave and as Nasri, Kolo Toure, Fabregas and Gael Clichy have departed so the possibility of the sort of success that would keep other gifted players at the club recedes. Robin van Persie will turn 29 in the summer; can he be blamed if he seeks silverware elsewhere?
Wenger, meanwhile, retreating further into his bunker, recites the mantra about financial doping and keeping the club in the black. And it's true: to qualify regularly for the Champions League while spending as little as he has done is astonishing. But idealism has its limits; sometimes holes have to be filled. If Wenger really is refusing to spend when money is available, then he has ceased to be an idealist and has become a fundamentalist.
If, though, as seems more likely, the money is not available, and he is sticking to a budget given to him from the board, then that in itself raises questions. The move to the Emirates Stadium in 2006 was supposed to generate the funds that could allow Arsenal to compete with the very best -- even if it meant short-term retrenchment while interest on the loan was paid off. Recent figures suggested that Arsenal's matchday revenue is so great that in two games it outstrips what Sunderland makes in a season. Yet that money is not being spent. Why? Because of Wenger's ideals? Or because the owner, Stan Kroenke, is refusing to release it?
The signings Wenger made late in the transfer window -- Andre Santos, Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Park Chu Young -- were depressing because they were neither one thing nor the other: neither the sort of fresh young talent Wenger could mould (until they sought trophies and better wages three years down the line) nor the proven talent of the absolute highest level that could yet salvage the project.
Saturday's loss was a shambolic display -- poor defensively, as Arsenal have regularly been of late, and lacking conviction, as though the players looked at a bumpy pitch, felt the icy whip of the wind off the North Sea and decided it wasn't for them. There has always been a trace of that tendency in Arsenal's purism but lack of motivation now seems a more general problem, of which Arshavin is the embodiment.
Arsenal might still be fourth, a remarkable achievement in the circumstances, but the capitulation at Fulham and Saturday's limp display -- as well as the more obvious humiliation at Old Trafford -- show a team for whom mental weakness has become not merely a flaw but a defining trait. What's worse is that the philosophy on which Wenger's Arsenal was based now seems unworkable.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.