Arsene Wenger watches as his team loses at home to Liverpool for the first time in 11 years. (Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)
As the ball looped slowly over Wojciech Szczesny's head on Saturday morning at the Emirates Stadium, you could practically feel the air being sucked out of Arsenal nation. By the time Luis Suarez applied the coup de grace for Liverpool in the 90th minute, empty seats dotted a stadium that not so long ago would have pulsed with believers until the final whistle.
Those believers, those loyalists that used to proudly boast 'in Arsene we trust,' have started to turn on their professor, and for the first time since Arsene Wenger arrived from Japan, the words 'sack' and 'resign' are being uttered in the same breath.
In some quarters, this might seem a little extreme, given the 2011-12 season is only a whopping three games deep; however, the Gunners' malaise runs far deeper than just three matches.
Since blowing the Carling Cup Final in late February to Birmingham City, Arsenal Football Club has been in a spiral that defies conventional wisdom, perhaps because the root cause defies the singular events we seen each weekend. The reason for this collapse is a lack belief.
The crazy thing about this deficiency: If anyone knows how to create a winning formula and belief within a squad, it is Arsene Wenger. When the Frenchman arrived in London he took over an Arsenal club that had lost its way. Within a year, he had kneaded it into one of the most fearsome units ever seen in English football. The fact that he's now floundering is hard to fathom, but it does come down to this simple equation.
To be a successful winning team, you need successful, winning players - players who never lack for belief.
Within the current squad there are individuals who have won trophies, but there is not one player who has won something with Arsenal. Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy were the last links to the culture of success that used to define the Gunners. Now, each have moved on to greener pastures. The reason they've left is fairly compelling and hurtful if you're a Gunner. They want to play for clubs that have a realistic chance of winning trophies.
Now when players - who in general are the most selfish people on the planet - start saying 'we want trophies' and feel they can't get them where they're at, it's time to start listening.
Wenger, though, is seemingly turning a deaf ear to all the noise that surrounds him. The fans have begged him to spend money, and they want him to spend on known quantities. They want players that can arrive in North London and become immediate impact performers; however, Wenger has continued his practice of spending money on unknowns.
Unfortunately, unknowns usually take time to develop, and Wenger has no more time. He's got to produce now, especially after third place in the Premiership was carelessly ceded to Manchester City during the last season's run-in.
After a narrow one-nil win last week against Udinese in their UEFA Champions League play-off, a harrowing journey to Italy will require a lot more bottle than the squad is currently exuding. With Wenger desperately searching for characters, his squad looks anorexic.
Of course there is always the possibility that a comprehensive display will see Udinese swept aside in Italy and that momentum will roar into Old Trafford next Sunday. But let's be realistic here.
After watching the Italians last week in London, Udinese are more than capable of beating Arsenal. Life without Champions League football would be an absolute disaster. A huge chunk of revenue disappears, let alone the ability to attract the kind of players who want to play Champions League football.
Wednesday will represent the most important 90 minutes Arsenal have played since the 2006 Champions League.
Regardless of Wednesday's result, moving forward to next Sunday, a point in Manchester would seem like a huge moral victory. That might happen, if Wenger parks the bus, but we know that isn't going to happen. Arsenal does not have the resources to achieve such a result. They'll travel north thinking of nothing but damage limitation.
Believers will look to Sunday as a chance to kick-start the campaign. Realists will know that it could be the beginning of the end. The Arsenal board will be acutely aware that knee-jerk reactions don't work (especially in the Premiership), though at this point, it's difficult to imagine any choice that would be truly knee-jerk. The decisions that need to happen have been six years in the making.