Bleak mid-winter looms for Arsenal
LONDON: Arsene Wenger has long cherished his reputation as one of English football's great sages, but he will take no great satisfaction in seeing his most recent prediction born out.
Asked at the start of last month where he felt this season's title race would be won and lost, the Arsenal manager was unequivocal in his response.
"November is important," he said. "Traditionally it has not been a good month for us, but I explain that by the fact we had more injuries, it is the first period when they kick in. It depends on the fixtures too - you can have two or three difficult games in November."
Now, as he stands on the cusp of the traditionally frantic festive period, Wenger can reflect gloomily on how history has repeated itself.
Arsenal's title challenge, which appeared in rude health just four weeks ago, has suffered two devastating blows thanks to defeats at Sunderland and, more pointedly, at home to Chelsea, results which have left them 11 points adrift of their west London rivals ahead of Saturday's home game with Stoke City.
Even the club's famed youngsters have seen their progress checked in the most brutal fashion courtesy of a 3-0 League Cup quarter-final reverse at Manchester City.
Combine all that with serious injuries to Robin van Persie, Arsenal's most potent attacker this season, and the reliable left-back Gael Clichy, and a season which promised so much is already teetering on the brink.
Next year, Wenger might just be tempted to relocate his summer holiday to the dank autumn days of November.
The Frenchman has been his usual bullish self in the face of a fresh wave of scepticism over various aspects of his managerial methodology: the reluctance to spend heavily in the transfer market, the almost complete absence of rugged physicality in a squad overladen with small, scampering attackers, the dogged refusal to field his senior players in the League Cup and thus by-pass another chance to end a trophy drought which already stretches back to 2005.
Wenger has always been fiercely principled but there have been occasions in recent weeks when his determination to defend his methods has come across as self-delusional.
His refusal to acknowledge the performance of Didier Drogba after the defeat to Chelsea was remarkable for a man whose views on the tactical and technical nuances of the game are so renowned, while his sulky reaction to the defeat at City on Wednesday - Wenger stomped down the players' tunnel without bothering to shake hands with his opposite number, Mark Hughes - was graceless.
Arsenal supporters are not turning on Wenger - indeed, it is hard to imagine a day when they do so in significant numbers.
But it is debatable how long they will be prepared to pay the eye-watering prices routinely charged at the Emirates stadium in return for watching a team with no realistic hopes of winning a major prize.
Wenger might yet come under pressure to overhaul his rigid footballing philosophy next summer.
For all their recent troubles, Arsenal should still have enough to account for Stoke on Saturday. The Potters might boast the kind of strong-arm tactics which can traditionally ruffle the feathers of Wenger's dainty team, but slip-ups on home soil remain a rarity for the Gunners.
Stoke are also notoriously poor travellers, having won just once away from the Britannia stadium all season, although they have taken heart from Arsenal's slump in form.
"I'm hoping that it will play into our hands," Andy Wilkinson, the defender, said. "But you don't know, you don't want the backlash of it. We'll need to be right at the top of our game.
"Our away performances are much better than last year. We're going to places, we're believing in ourselves and we're not letting the occasion get the better of us. But by no means is it going to be an easy game for us."