The Arsenal verdict: Gunners must react, or face up to the inevitable
League Two minnows taught their vaunted opponents a lesson, and now Arsene Wenger’s side must respond
Arsene Wenger has had to deal with some desperate disappointments in the last couple of years, but the Frenchman cannot have felt much lower than on the way back from frozen Yorkshire on Tuesday night.
It was, by some distance, Wenger’s worst cup result in his 16 years in charge at the club. While his proud record of never having been beaten by a lower division team evaporated four years ago against Burnley, the Gunners had only lost to Championship sides, not one from League Two.
Wenger has suffered countless damaging league results, Champions League frustrations from deepest Ukraine to glittering finals in Paris, and cup defeats aplenty, but never has one of his Arsenal teams succumbed to a team so far below them.
This was a club from the Football League’s bottom tier. Not only that, but Arsenal played their full side against them. It was as inexcusable as it was unfathomable, but the fact is Arsenal are out, and they deserved to go out.
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Bradford’s collection of young hopefuls and gnarled old pros showed up Arsenal’s team of mega-rich internationals with a display of the core values of any football team: hard work, desire, teamwork and a never-say-die attitude. They simply didn’t allow themselves to be beaten.
Wenger was right to pay credit to Bradford afterwards, because they were quite superb. This is a team who were playing their 10th cup tie of the season, and are yet to lose one – a team who have now navigated four penalty shoot-outs successfully in this campaign.
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Who would have thought Arsenal could learn something from those players, from a team like Bradford? But they could.
Nothing betrayed Arsenal’s current malaise more than the sight of the teamsheet before the game. Wenger had decided to play his full team, almost without exception. That was a huge surprise, but it shows just how much he realised this game was losable, and also how much he valued progression to the semi-finals and possibly beyond.
Some would say Wenger is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. If he loses with a weakened team – as he has done in the past in this competition – then he is lambasted for his selection. But always in the past there was the feeling that ‘the first team would have won that game’. It is an argument that has never convinced, and this time it didn’t apply.
Were the players who started hungry enough? It is hard to know. Certainly some of them under-performed, but as a unit there was a collective effort to find an equaliser to Garry Thompson’s 16th-minute goal, at least in the final 25 minutes, and one that bore fruit, finally, with Thomas Vermaelen’s 87th-minute header.
What followed, in extra time, was probably the most damning indictment of where Arsenal are now at. They had the ball for almost the entire 30 minutes in the added period, had all their ‘best’ players on the pitch, and yet failed to take a single chance against a valiant but tiring lower-division side.
Even after that, redemption was still possible in the shoot-out, but the sight of the Gunners cowering in the centre circle hardly convinced. Again, there was that question of a winning mentality, of leadership, of passing a test of character. Penalties are a lottery but how many Arsenal fans thought Marouane Chamakh was going to score?
It is not a time for scapegoats, and there is even a chance Wenger could use this result to his advantage. When his young side lost the Carling Cup final to Birmingham City in February 2011 they disintegrated – despite being unluckily defeated by Barcelona in Europe – and saw a genuine title challenge fade to barely hanging on to fourth place.
This was a harrowing defeat, but it was not a final, and there are bigger games to come, starting at Reading on Monday night.
However amid all the talk of European qualification, of top-four finishes and of consistency and continuity, those who think Wenger’s time is at an end now have a reference point.
Starting from this result, Wenger knows he has something to prove. His side must improve over the next six months and end the season, as they did last May, if not with silverware then with a clear sign of progress.
If that does not happen, Wenger may even decide he is no longer the man to take the club forward. Or somebody else might finally decide it for him.