Last summer Arsène Wenger believed he had scored a major victory in keeping Cesc Fábregas at Arsenal for another tilt at ending the club's trophy drought.
A sixth season without a pot followed and with Fábregas's departure to Barcelona finally imminent, Wenger appears like a man who bet the farm and now holds only a busted flush.
The peril is not just Arsenal's, as they embark on a seventh season since Patrick Vieira's penalty in a shoot-out against Manchester United won the 2005 FA Cup, but for Wenger's future. If the trophy cabinet at the Emirates remains bare come May the Frenchman's job could be in danger for the first time since he walked into the club in September 1996.
With Samir Nasri also leaving for Manchester City, where he would be following Gaël Clichy, the joke goes that Arsenal have become a feeder for Sheikh Mansour's club. Eight years after Wenger's Invincibles were such an irresistible force, fans are puzzled at how it came to this.
This summer Wenger has recruited Gervinho for £11m, Carl Jenkinson (£1m), and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (£15m). All three are unproven in the Premier League. The 17-year-old Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jenkinson, 19, appear two more illustrations of Wenger's penchant for investing in the future that so frustrates Arsenal supporters, and which is also displayed by the acquisition of the Japanese midfielder, Ryo Miyaichi, whom the Frenchman describes as an "exceptional talent". At 18 and with six months at Feyenoord under his belt, Miyaichi appears no replacement for Fábregas or Nasri.
To shore up a defence that has been a glaring weakness for a few seasons, Wenger is pursuing Scott Dann of Birmingham City. A 24-year-old whose last experience was being relegated can hardly inspire that growing constituency who so want the Frenchman to succeed but also want his jam-tomorrow philosophy torn up for a hard-edged attitude that places winning before a Barcelona-lite playing style.
Not many fans would mourn the departure of Nicklas Bendtner, Tomas Rosicky and Carlos Vela – they are all free to go – but Wenger could encounter the first mutiny of his tenure if Nasri follows Fábregas, and he does not land a marquee signing such as Valencia's Juan Mata or Karim Benzema of Real Madrid, in both of whom he retains an interest.
If they or any other dazzling performer fails to arrive the group who questioned Wenger's abilities at the summer's Arsenal Supporters' Trust meeting would swell. Those who raised the "IN ARSENE WE RUST" banner during last season's tailing-off would have fewer numbers shouting it down if they wave it again.
Beyond Fábregas and Nasri, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott are entering the final two years of their deals. They do not need cash-hungry advisers to gaze at the Arsenal player list and inform them that the squad is far weaker now than the one that crumbled so badly once the business end of last term arrived.
At that supporters' trust meeting Ivan Gazidis, the Arsenal chief executive, squirmed through an uncomfortable grilling. Regarding the previous painful campaign, he said: "When it happens consistently over time you have to acknowledge there is an issue there, and you've got to look at it and address it. We perhaps lack the knowhow to close out games when you need to and do the ugly things well when you sometimes need to do that. That has sometimes been missing."
At the moment Gazidis contends that a waning in Wenger's powers is not to blame. However, an intelligent if occasionally myopic man, the Frenchman is aware of the growing pressure around him. Wenger may yet have a grand strategy and emerge from the summer buy-and-sell carousel with a clutch of new recruits that will appease the fans, however, and make all rivals wary.
With the departure of Fábregas, and the future of Nasri uncertain, a seventh barren year would surely force Gazidis to reconsider his current stance. "I still think most of our fans support Arsène and I don't think we're anywhere near a position where he'd have to consider his position with the club," he said. But Gazidis and supporters now openly discuss it.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010