LONDON, England, December 13 – Arsenal’s League Cup loss to fourth-tier Bradford City was one of the lowest moments of Arsene Wenger’s tenure and leaves the club scrapping to avoid an eighth straight season without a trophy.
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s penalty shoot-out loss at a wintry Valley Parade, Wenger was typically bullish, congratulating Bradford on their achievement and insisting he could not fault his players.
That the upset occurred in the League Cup, and not the prestigious FA Cup, took some of the edge off of Arsenal’s disappointment, but the British press were unanimously scathing in their verdict.
“Humiliating” was the adjective universally applied to the result on the back pages, while The Times claimed Wenger was “walking on thin ice” after the latest setback in what has already been an extremely trying season.
Wenger’s decision to field a strong line-up only increased the embarrassment.
The Arsenal manager has habitually used the League Cup to blood young-team graduates but he made just three changes to the side that beat West Bromwich Albion 2-0 on Saturday, only for his senior players to let him down.
The Bradford humiliation caps a miserable year for Arsenal, who lost top scorer Robin van Persie to Manchester United in the summer and have fallen as low as 10th in the Premier League this season.
Wenger told shareholders at October’s stormy AGM that there are “five trophies” for Arsenal to aim for — the Premier League, the Champions League, the FA Cup, the League Cup, and Champions League qualification.
Already out of the League Cup and 15 points behind United in the league, Arsenal do not seem sufficiently well-equipped to challenge for the Champions League either and once again face a battle to secure a top-four finish.
Hopes of success in the FA Cup, meanwhile, rest on whether or not they can come through their third-round tie at Swansea City next month, having already lost at home to the Welsh side earlier this month.
Scattered among Wednesday’s painful headlines were unwelcome reports that Theo Walcott may follow van Persie to Old Trafford after talks over a new contract reached an impasse.
It would be another severe blow to Wenger’s vision for the club, with van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Alex Song having already left the Emirates Stadium since the end of the 2010-11 campaign.
The Arsenal manager, though, refuses to adapt his approach, despite desperate pleas from supporters to spend some of the £70 million ($113 million, 86 million euros) in available funds reported to be at his disposal on new players.
“I always feel under pressure to deliver — always. And I always question: can we be successful doing it this way?” he told the January edition of FourFourTwo magazine.
“By managing the club within its own resources, by giving youth a chance, by developing a style of play that you think is right?
“What has changed is the competition over the past 16 years. It’s become bigger and better with clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City coming in.
“But we haven’t changed the way we do things. Instead, we aim to do the same, but do it better.”
Working in Wenger’s favour is his knack for engineering season-altering bursts of form in the second half of the campaign.
Seven straight wins in February and March helped Arsenal secure third place last term, while they went 16 games unbeaten in the second half of the 2010-11 season and 21 games without losing in 2008-09.
Arsenal’s next four games are all against teams in the bottom half of the table, and while Wenger refuses to be ruffled by recent setbacks, the headlines will not get any kinder without a drastic improvement.