By Oliver Platt
It has been more than 11 years since Bradford City last kicked a ball in the top flight of English football but for 120 minutes and 10 penalty kicks, they rubbed shoulders with one of the nation's most storied clubs once again. "At the end of the day it's 11 men against 11 men," Gary Jones pointed out.
While Jones and his manager, Phil Parkinson, were lauded by the home section of the 23,971 fans at Valley Parade, Arsene Wenger endured taunts that are beginning to sound increasingly familiar.
Back in 2001, and for as much as a decade after that, the idea that a title-winning, club-transforming boss would be gleefully told that he would be getting sacked in the morning was unimaginable.
On Tuesday evening, Bradford did the almost-unimaginable and knocked Arsenal out of the Capital One Cup. This was Wenger's nadir. This time the chants were aired not only as a jubilant gloat; they are becoming increasingly expectant. How long can this go on?
Wenger will not be sacked, and nor should he be. But support for his job security is becoming less to do with the brilliant qualities he has brought to north London and to the Premier League in more than 16 years as Arsenal manager, and more to do with the tailspin it is easy to imagine the Gunners sliding into if they parted with a figure who has been so influential for so long.
|MATCH FACTS | Bradford 1-1 Arsenal (3-2 p)
The FA Cup is now Arsenal's only realistic target, although they remain in the Champions League. "You make your assessment at the end of the season," Wenger has maintained.
There are serious questions to be answered. Wenger's devotion to running a sustainable club has been his main defence through this seven-year barren spell; the spending of the likes of Manchester City cannot go on, he has reasoned, and when it stops or is stopped, Arsenal will be well-placed to succeed.
But this value-for-money logic loses its credibility when one remembers that more than £10 million was spent on Gervinho.
In the transfer market, Wenger seems to have lost some of his sparkle. Santi Cazorla is spectacular, and Olivier Giroud is beginning to flourish. But, for a second consecutive season, Arsenal look set to take the opportunity to bring Thierry Henry back to the club on loan and on this evidence, his signing will not be an added luxury but a necessity.
Wenger blamed missed chances but the Arsenal attack was unbalanced and lacking in quality. Aaron Ramsey was, yet again, deployed in a right-sided position utterly unsuited to him while Lukas Podolski continued to look incapable of being a genuine difference-maker in his own right on the left. Describing Gervinho as an unorthodox centre forward would be flattering.
In the previous round of the competition, against Reading, Arsenal were 4-0 down inside 37 minutes and here their defence was frequently breached by a simple big man-little man strike combination.
Bizarrely, the midfield played rather well. Cazorla was majestic in spells and Jack Wilshere is so adored because he is the rare combination of ability and personality that was seen commonly at Highbury in the old ground's final years but has been less notable at the Emirates Stadium. Francis Coquelin did not disgrace himself and Tomas Rosicky was impressive again from the bench.
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This poorly-constructed squad is Wenger's, and he does not seem to know how to get the best out of it. His reaction was as feeble as his team's recent form. How could a man who has hit so many highs not feel embarrassment from the touchline?
"You feel embarrassed when you don't give everything. I feel the team did fight, and they will be more disappointed and frustrated," he said.
This feels like the beginning of the end of an era. Arsenal cannot get much lower, but in the wake of this defeat, an upwardly mobile club is hard to picture without a more fundamental change. There are more deep-rooted problems to deal with; 'Silent' Stan Kroenke hardly seems ideal as a leadership personality at this moment.
No longer, though, can the manager escape an element of responsibility for this decline.
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