Column - Arsene didn’t see it but the end is nigh

JUST as regular as Arsenal's annual fade has been their final flourish – when, having slipped out of the title race and Champions League, they mount a late surge to secure a top four slot, finish above Spurs and, maybe, win the FA Cup.

So far, it has just about placated fans calling for Arsene Wenger's head on a silver platter. This season, though, there is a growing sense of inevitability about the manager's proximity to the guillotine.

In February 2012, Arsenal found themselves 10 points behind their neighbours but still reeled them in to finish in the top four. A year later the gap was seven points at one stage but the Gunners still grabbed the bragging rights.

In 2014, Wenger had decided to go if they didn't win the FA Cup – but they did and retained it the following year. Last season, they somehow overcame Spurs, who had been duking it out with Leicester for the title, to pip them to the runners-up spot.

2017? Watching the abject surrender at Liverpool, it was hard to see where such a dip for the line was going to come from. And now, Wenger having been forced to explain the inexplicable, it looks even less likely.

The decision to bench Alexis Sanchez at Anfield, it transpires, was not tactical at all but because the Chilean had behaved like a spoilt brat. He had rowed with teammates, with Wenger, and had so many tantrums he made Thierry Henry's hand-on-hips routine look like a rallying cry.

At the time, with Sanchez coming on for the second half, it appeared half-baked. Now it appears even worse. If it had been merely tactical, it was an admission of failure; but now we know that it was a punishment, it was an admission of weakness.

A week on from Claudio Ranieri's dressing room-induced removal, we are again talking about player power. Sanchez, the undisputed star of this Arsenal side, has the power. He is demanding that his wages are more than doubled and he knows that if Arsenal won't pay, there's a scrum of clubs that will.

And with only just over a year left on his contract, he also knows that the Gunners won't be able to command his true worth if they do sell him. He has them where he wants them, calling the shots as effectively as he does on the field – with 17 goals and nine assists, he has become indispensable.

It makes you wonder how Fergie would have dealt with him. Wenger's one-time nemesis once told the League Managers Association: "You must always retain the power over players because the moment your power is questioned the players will take advantage". Hence, the sudden departures of Roy Keane, Jaap Stam and many others.

In the early years, Fergie tried to ensure he was paid more than the players as a way of showing who was boss, but that became impossible when the TV money sent player wages off the Richter. Remember Wayne Rooney threatening to leave to "a club with more ambition"?

Knowing that it was Man City, Fergie pulled out all the stops to keep Rooney, even agreeing to his outrageous wage demands of £300,000 a week and a five-year contract. He simply had to and kept the player. But at what cost?

Fergie won plaudits for his diplomacy and averted the catastrophe of his star joining the noisy neighbours, but he would never again be the all-powerful capo di tutti capi he had been. And he resigned before things got really out of hand.

Wenger has survived him but has also paid the ultimate price of losing his power. When asked after the game if the Sánchez decision was "made for the team", the Frenchman replied: "I will explain that later one time. Well, "later" came sooner than he'd hoped.

Retaining Sanchez in the squad but not starting with him was symptomatic of Wenger's muddled thinking. It was neither here nor there, a halfway house between exoneration and the naughty step. Like sending an errant child outside but with his favourite ice lolly.

You can't help feeling it was further evidence of Wenger floundering against the dying of the light. His tactics and team selections have raised more and more Gooner eyebrows this season and even his whinges don't carry the old conviction. To paraphrase Nixon, he doesn't have a water bottle to kick around anymore.

At Anfield, as he sat there in front of a smirking Sanchez, he didn't even sulk as he used to. As his players contrived to put on the worst first half performance of his 21-year tenure, there was almost an air of resignation. There is a two-year contract on the table but he hasn't signed it. Rumours abound that Max Allegri is to replace him, but the final word will be his.

Not even his harshest critic wishes him anything but a dignified end to one of the most significant managerial reigns in English football history. It is terribly sad to see it all unravel in this way but the only hope of putting even a veneer of gloss on another failed season now looks to be another FA Cup although even that probably wouldn't do him justice.

Like Ranieri, it could be an epic personal tragedy. Fergie managed to carry on winning trophies and had the sense to quit while he was ahead. But even he compromised with Eric Cantona as well as Rooney just as Matt Busby had with George Best's shenanigans a generation before. You sometimes have to with the greats.

Wenger's only hope is to sit Sanchez down and promise a real shot at the title by buying three or four top players as well as giving him the wages he wants. In other words, show him that Arsenal are serious about winning trophies and not just making a profit. It boils down to that.

As one of the chief proponents of fiscal prudence, if it doesn't change, Wenger will be hoist by his own petard. Or, if you prefer, strangled by his own tight purse strings. It is a different game now and the players call the shots.

It is sadly appropriate that, to borrow one of his old phrases, he didn't see it coming.