Arsène Wenger was at a low ebb on Friday. His heavy cold embodied the subdued mood at a faltering club about to meet Tottenham Hotspur at the Emirates. In modern times, the fixture has often been about pride alone, but the days are gone when the visitors sought something so small as a mere, isolated win over Arsenal.

Tottenham, third in the table, will have hopes of maintaining or extending the 10-point lead over them. Whether they achieve that or not, the scrutiny of Wenger and his employers will continue. Supporters understand the value of prudence but also believe that the virtue is being taken too far.

The "Arsène Knows" sign could have been decommissioned a long time ago. While fans may resist vilifying him in the near future, he is the cause of as much frustration as Stan Kroenke, the American who holds the majority stake in the club. The latter may attend the encounter with Tottenham, even if the mood in the Emirates has an undertow of animosity towards the owners as well as the visitors.

Followers of Arsenal have, all the same, just begun to express dissent. They may still be glad of possessing costly season tickets that start at almost £1,000 considering that there is a waiting list of 40,000. Nonetheless, those who can attend the games do not feel so very privileged any more.

Their tone still tends to be quizzical rather than mutinous towards Wenger but that could be changing. "Everyone will mention him and Sir Alex Ferguson," said Andrew Mangan, editor of arseblog.com, "but Ferguson is there because he has kept on winning things." It seems that a knack for disappointment has been honed at Arsenal.

Defeat in last season's League Cup final did not seem so very astonishing despite the fact that opponents Birmingham City had taken the silverware on the way to relegation. It sometimes feels that Arsenal are dogged in their capacity to fall short. Whatever is said of the League Cup, it could have stopped the constant references to Arsenal lacking a trophy since the 2005 FA Cup.

On that occasion the side first survived the final against a dominant Manchester United before prevailing in a shoot-out. The sense that this is now a distant event is underpinned by the realisation that the match was staged at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

There is no seething mob confronting Wenger even now and while he should be spared that after all the wonders once accomplished, a scepticism is on the rise that can undermine a manager in its own fashion.

"The idea of him staying forever isn't as obvious as it was," says Mangan, before attempting to understand Wenger's circumstances and intentions. "Is it wilfulness or stubbornness or is there something going on in the background that he is covering up? It would be sad if it ended in acrimony."

Wenger could regard himself as unlucky when, for instance, his side reached the final of the Champions League, only to appreciate that the game was a lost cause because the opponents were a Barcelona lineup hailed as among the greatest teams in history.

That was a day when Arsenal were hopelessly disadvantaged, but there are accusations that the club also confounds itself. Wenger is poised when justifying his situation. Only Blackburn and Wigan have a worse defensive record in away games in the Premier League. The Arsenal manager's response is not so very comforting for fans.

"We conceded eight at Man United and four at the beginning of the season at Blackburn," he said. "So overall I feel since then we have stabilised our defence." Followers of the club would wonder why such debacles had even been feasible. The loss of four goals without reply to Milan in the first leg of the last 16 tie in Champions League did not suggest that all ills have been cured.

The quick-witted Wenger also referred to the fact that his club had at least got to the knockout phase, leaving everyone to ponder the Manchester clubs who are out of the competition and busy instead in the Europa League. Who can blame him? Opportunities for oneupmanship do not come often enough for Arsenal.

He has been criticised by people such as the former Arsenal manager George Graham. Wenger can cite ill-fortune as in the serious injury to the centre-half Per Mertesacker, who was bought in the summer. Then again, he is probably not as great a loss as that suffered by United when Nemanja Vidic's season was ended by cruciate damage.

The Frenchman tries to ignore the remarks of Graham and others. "I fight for what I can master," Wenger said. "It's a waste of energy and of time to speak about people who have opinions. They are entitled to have an opinion, that I respect. It does not mean this person is necessarily right. We live in a world where you have to accept that. I can completely live with that. That is not the most important for me. The most important for me is that we turn up with a good performance on Sunday."

It is part of the punishment of a manager in difficulties that everything he has ever done becomes open to re-examination. Wenger was asked, for example, if he might not have signed the excellent Gareth Bale who went to Tottenham instead. "We had full-backs at the time. We had Clichy, we had Cole. After we were more keen on [Theo] Walcott, Walcott was a lot of money."

Arsenal did pay Southampton £5m for him in 2006, with Tottenham stumping up the same amount for Bale when too he arrived, also from Southampton, a year later. Wenger also praised the fact that Redknapp has taken the former Arsenal forward Emmanuel Adebayor on loan from Manchester City.

"He's done well," Wenger remarked of Redknapp. "Having said that, if the player was allowed to play as well against Man City, maybe they would have a more realistic approach. I was always against the case that you can loan the player and he cannot play against you. He should be allowed to play against you as well."

It was an odd argument since Arsenal have no contractual connection at all to Adebayor and perhaps it reflected unease in Wenger over his general situation on the approach to the north London derby. The often ironic Wenger was almost emotional about the test to come this weekend.

"It's vital for us," he said of the scene anticipated at the Emirates. "Arsenal v Tottenham is a passionate game," he said, "you expect that. It's only a passionate game if your fans stand behind you and give absolutely everything like the players will do."

He will prize the devotion of those onlookers as well as the sacrifices made to afford the season tickets, but it was notable to hear Wenger take such a populist stance. He often seems above the fray. On this occasion, the emotion that simmers within Wenger will almost certainly surge to the surface in a game that will go some way to determining Arsenal's season.