By Liam Twomey
As Arsenal prepare for Sunday's north London derby showdown with Tottenham at White Hart Lane, no one knows better than Arsene Wenger that there is more than local bragging rights at stake.
Cup humiliation at the hands of Bradford City and Blackburn, combined with a timid Champions League first-leg submission at home to Bayern Munich in January, have all but condemned the Gunners to eight years without a trophy. The Frenchman's stock has never been lower.
For those who frequent the Emirates Stadium, a chronic lack of silverware is compounded by some of the highest ticket prices in world football and a squad stripped of star quality on a yearly basis. Disillusionment is growing, protests are gathering pace and booing has become all too regular.
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"I understand the fans. If you are a supporter of your club, you want to win something every year and if you don't win anything for six or seven years or even longer, the fans get a bit critical."
Any mention of Overmars will, for many Gunners fans, instantly evoke memories of a time when their club first threatened to displace Manchester United as the dominant force in English football and Wenger was viewed as one of the most progressive coaches in the game.
Some 15 years ago the Dutchman, now enjoying the position of director of football at Ajax, tormented Premier League full-backs with blistering pace and dazzling trickery as an Arsenal side boasting Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp romped to the title.
It was the club's first for seven years and, although United responded in typical fashion by dominating for the next three, Wenger remained Sir Alex Ferguson's most capable challenger.
In 2002, two years after Overmars had departed for Barcelona, the Frenchman's next great side, inspired by Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Vieira and an evergreen Bergkamp, triumphed again. In 2004, the 'Invincibles' made history by going an entire league campaign unbeaten.
These successes, and the scintillating style in which they were achieved, are what have sustained Arsenal fans through the barren years.
|"They should still support Wenger and the board. They had unbelievably good years before and it's still possible in the future they can create a new team that reaches that level"
- Marc Overmars on Arsene Wenger
Now their patience is wearing thin but, while he admits that he does not know what the future holds for Wenger, Overmars insists that the Gunners boss – together with much-maligned majority shareholder Stan Kroenke and chief executive Ivan Gazidis – still deserve backing.
"They should still support Mr Wenger and the board," he declared. "They had unbelievably good years before and it's still possible that in the future they can create a new team that reaches that level.
"I understand the situation of the fans but they still have to support the club."
One of the most persistent accusations levelled at Wenger is that he is unwilling to spend the money on acquiring new talent required to keep Arsenal competitive in an age where Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern investment funds are transforming the landscape of European football.
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The frugal style of Wenger - part manager, part economist - has in recent times seen the Gunners miss out on, among others, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard, two of the continent's finest creative talents. Both were persuaded that Chelsea were the only London club with the resources to match their ambition.
In the meantime, the Frenchman is finding it increasingly difficult to unearth hidden gems and rough diamonds as his rivals compete with equally comprehensive scouting networks.
Now, with their top-four hopes in the balance and Wenger under increasing pressure, the Arsenal board have reportedly revealed a £70m summer transfer kitty for the manager to spend as he wishes.
But for Overmars, the idea that splashing the cash can cure his former club's ills is a misguided one.
"These days it's very difficult because the whole world is searching for young talents," he continues.
"I work with Ajax and I can see everyone searching for the best players in the world from the age of 15 or 16 years old.
"It's not about spending. Of course you can spend if you buy the right players. But you can't just spend to get out of a crisis. That's the wrong way."
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