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How long will Wenger last at Arsenal?

Arsene Wenger reacts to Arsenal's League Cup loss to Bradford on Tuesday night.
Arsene Wenger reacts to Arsenal's League Cup loss to Bradford on Tuesday night.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Poking out of his signature knee-length coat he wore a face even more crinkled and crumpled up than usual. Arsene Wenger looked on, aghast, as his Arsenal side went behind to fourth-tier Bradford City in Tuesday’s League Cup quarterfinals.

He raised his arms in disgust, failing even to begin to comprehend what was unfolding before him.

The 24,000 or so gleeful home fans in Bradford sang aloud what many were quietly wondering: “You’re getting sacked in the morning.”

Their barb carried some weight.

It’s been seven seasons since Arsenal has won anything. And after yet another decrepit start to the Premier League campaign – Arsenal currently sits in seventh place, having risen from a tenth place last weekend – things don’t look like they’re going to turn anytime soon. Arsenal is into the final 16 of the UEFA Champions League but hasn’t set that league on fire either. The third round of the FA Cup doesn’t kick off until January, but Arsenal will have to get past Swansea City, a tricky task these days.

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All of which made it quite understandable that Wenger would play a full-strength side against a team that placed in the bottom quarter of League Two last year. The League Cup is a competition that becomes eminently winnable if only a big club takes it seriously. And Wenger needs to win something soon.

Wenger’s been living off the credit of his undefeated league-winning 2003-04 season for nearly a decade now. The Gunners are no longer an invincible or an untouchable side, and have been in a steady decline stylistically, too. Wenger speaks of “the project” ad nauseam, but whenever strides are made, the club seems to lose its best players – either because they’re sick of not winning things or because Arsenal supposedly cannot afford them, in spite of the massive revenue generated.

So it made every bit of sense not to play the kids and the scrubs in the League Cup, as he so often has.

Yet here now, before him, his side was unraveling further.

It took just 16 minutes for the team currently ranked 92nd in England to go ahead against Arsenal, winner of 13 First Division and Premier League titles. From a wide free kick, the ball drifted into the Arsenal box, where it should have been headed away but wasn’t, before Garry Thompson, overlooked and unmarked by the second post, side-footed the ball past Wojciech Szczesny.

This was not a fluke. Bradford produced meaningful shots all throughout the game. In the first half, Bradford put three shots on target to Arsenal’s two.

Chief among the Gunner misses was a 42nd-minute howler by Gervinho, the oddly-braided Ivorian, whose shot from three yards before a wide-open goal somehow went wide. At the other end, meanwhile, Nahki Wells continued to torment Thomas Vermaelen as he put his shot just inches wide after yet more disgraceful defending from the Belgian center back.

It took the Londoners until the 88th minute to even get on the scoreboard, when Santi Cazorla swung in a cross following a corner that Vermaelen was able to nod in at the second post – the only real lapse of a sturdy defense backstopped by the excellent Matt Duke.

Then, on penalties, Cazorla and Marouane Chamakh missed, followed by another miss by Vermaelen; sealing a pathetic, embarrassing and horrifying loss to a fourth-tier team.

In truth, it wasn’t even all that much of a shock. Arsenal was fortuitous to beat West Brom 2-0 on the weekend, courtesy of generous penalty calls and non-calls.

Nor was it undeserved. However urgent Arsenal was in its play, it had the utmost trouble breaking open their bunkered-in opponents. And there was really nothing special about Bradford or indeed its performance. By no means did they look like they were playing out of their skins in a one-off upwards aberration. Rather, they were defensively sound and well organized. Their goal wasn’t a fluke and their holding onto the lead not the product of good fortune. Sure, Arsenal dominated and was unlucky to hit a post and a bar. But Bradford didn’t look entirely overmatched. All along an upset had hung in the air for Arsenal to attempt to slog heavily through.

This fits in with the larger narrative of this latter-day Arsenal, which has stopped doing the very thing that once set them apart. Imprecise and insecure in the final third, they instead loft high balls into the box from afar but lack both an effective target man and a finisher to capitalize on them. Little remains of the old pacey, high-movement attacking symphony, which typically culminated in the springing of the cunning and clinical Thierry Henry.

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In recent years the side has been defensively frail and soft up the middle, once positions of great strength. And the creative spark that always defined the Gunners is absent. Playmaker Cazorla is a fine player but isn’t surrounded by sufficient talent for his gifts to be maximized. And then there’s Gervinho, surely the footballer with the lowest playing intelligence of any. His clodding clumsily along in the very space in which Henry once so gracefully strode, is perhaps the most damning piece of evidence that Arsenal isn’t what it once was.

The man who has overseen the decay, who let an institution fall into disrepair, has yet to be held to account. After 16 years in charge, Arsene remains synonymous with Arsenal, even if he has long since stopped serving its greatest good.

Chances are, Arsenal won’t win a trophy this year either. And the question now isn’t if this will be tolerated, but rather for how much longer.

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