"I love it when a plan comes together". So said Hannibal Smith of legendary 80's show the A-Team, but Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is now being forced to contemplate the probability that his dream and long term vision for his club's style and legacy is never going to result in trophies.
Saturday's FA Cup exit at Sunderland was the latest body blow in what has been a testing year for Wenger, with the own goal from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a cruel and almost unnecessary punchline to seal the result. The problem for Arsenal is that the result wasn't a shock; and although AC Milan clinically exposed that Arsenal were still in need of expensive surgery, the more damning conclusion is that one of the strongest teams the Gunners can field was comfortably defeated at the Stadium of Light.
More concerning still is that it's only a few weeks since Swansea City beat them at their own game at the Liberty Stadium.
Wenger can, with some justification, point to his net spend and never empty injury room as excuses for their failure to win a trophy; indeed, the Frenchman's own argument is that Arsenal have overachieved with the resources they have. Is that a valid response? How much of the clubs problems are the result of accident and how much is by design?
How many clubs have a 60,000 seater stadium (in London, no less) that is sold out most weeks? How many clubs had the resources to attract some of the most highly rated young players in world football? Loyalty to the club and Wenger might have been what kept the likes of Cesc Fabregas an extra season or two, but it wasn't loyalty which took him there in the first place.
Wenger's obstinate belief that the early to mid "noughties" trend of purchasing talented foreign youngsters and fleshing the squad out with what he saw as bargains would ultimately bring success has meant that he has refused to spend big when he needed to; mind, his track record of success when making big money purchases has hardly been anything to write home about.
He has often been criticised for a lack of alternative "plan" when his team were unable to win playing the way he preferred them to. It was a style that has been lauded by many pundits, to the extent that for the last half decade Arsenal were seen as most neutrals favourite team to watch. It was somewhat ironic to hear, in the build up to last weeks’ capitulation at the San Siro, Wenger referred to his team then as “...an up and coming team that was full of confidence and a very young side (as well).”
Mere weeks separated that famous victory and William Gallas' tantrum at Birmingham City; one of the most prominent examples of an Arsenal team imploding in the run-in, a trait that has become something of a Premier League early spring tradition. The faces on the pitch have changed but the man on the sideline hasn’t; harking back to “glory days” that weren’t exactly glorious is not what Arsenal fans want or need to hear.
No-one can argue with the bank balance and it does present a picture that Wenger has done a remarkable job keeping the team challenging for Champions League slots as long as he has but he didn't start with nothing; the club might have been in trouble for a year before his arrival yet they had won Cups, Leagues and gotten to European finals in the 4 or 5 years prior. Hardly a ramshackle outfit, despite the fine job Wenger has admittedly done.
And what of the training methods which were once referred to as revolutionary; methods which included nutritional diets that prolonged the careers of Dennis Bergkamp and Tony Adams? It has to be more than coincidence that Wenger has, over time, favoured slighter, smaller players, and that most of the problems have tended to be long term muscle issues. Yet the never ending injury crisis at the Emirates seems to have become an accepted occupational hazard; another sign of Wenger refusing to change track.
Since the retirement of Tony Adams, Arsenal's captains included Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas. Notice a trend? All fine players yet all players who had had long term links away from the club; rather than name a captain that he felt would lead the club, it seems that at times Wenger has used the armband as an anchor.
With Fabregas departed and Samir Nasri disinterested as he flirted with City, it was hard for neutrals to stomach Arsenal's early season form, let alone their loyal supporters (no, not the fair-weather Piers Morgan!). Yet Wenger's response to their mauling at Old Trafford where even Sir Alex pitied his opposing counterpart was to buy Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun. Two capable Premier League players who would adapt easily but a clear downgrade on what they previously had - band aids where that surgery was needed.
It was thought that Wenger had gotten Arsenal back on track - it has to be remembered that they aren't a terrible team, after all. Their recent return to wretched form is an indication that the situation is reaching its climax - a point of no return where either the philosophy goes, or Wenger does.
No manager wants to see others go through the mill but it must have been something of a relief to see Andre Villas-Boas have such a turbulent start to his Chelsea career and Kenny Dalglish struggle to work in the 21st century; the spotlight avoided Wenger but results have thrust him right back into the headlines after a week that the man himself declared as crucial.
He certainly deserves a chance to rebuild the club on the playing side - and the Arsenal board must give it him. After all, for all his faults, there is no available candidate that can do the job better. He will start next season on unfamiliar territory anyway with the impending retirement of trusted number two Pat Rice; there appears to be no better time for Wenger to rip up the blueprint and start again. The biggest question mark whether Arsene’s pride will go before Arsenal’s fall.