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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Anomalies now part of a wider trend with Arsene Wenger's Arsenal

Frenchman had never before fallen at the first hurdle of the FA Cup - a trophy he has won seven times - before Sunday's defeat to second-tier Nottingham Forest

Arsene Wenger watched Arsenal's 4-2 FA Cup third round defeat to Nottingham Forest from the stands at the City Ground as he served the first of a three-match touchline ban. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images
Arsene Wenger watched Arsenal's 4-2 FA Cup third round defeat to Nottingham Forest from the stands at the City Ground as he served the first of a three-match touchline ban. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

The announcement came three hours after the final whistle. The manager paid the price for an FA Cup shock. He was sacked. He was not Arsene Wenger. The only other Premier League manager to be eliminated by lower-league opponents, Mark Hughes, was dismissed by Stoke City.

Wenger remains at Arsenal, and understandably so: their cases are very different and the Frenchman has displayed an enduring ability to halt the kind of slide that cost the Welshman his job. He has never reached the point of no return. Sunday’s 4-2 defeat to Nottingham Forest came four days after Arsenal played some superb attacking football against Chelsea.

But it illustrated that distinctions are being chipped away from Wenger. He had never exited the FA Cup to lower-league opponents. Until 2013, when he lost to Blackburn Rovers. He had never fallen at the first hurdle. Until Sunday. He had never failed to finish in the top four. Until last season. Some of the heaviest and most harrowing losses – 8-2 to Manchester United, 6-0 to Chelsea, 5-1 to Bayern Munich, 5-1 and 4-0 to Liverpool – have come in recent years. Anomalies have nevertheless been part of a wider trend.

Wenger used to have a virtual immunity against upsets to Football League upstarts. The off-days – and there was a 3-0 League Cup exit at Sheffield Wednesday two seasons ago – are becoming more a little frequent. Per Mertesacker bluntly admitted that none of a second-string side justified their place on Sunday. If that is harsh on goalkeeper David Ospina, it is too simplistic to say Wenger’s squad players are always found wanting. But they can be.

Nottingham Forest's Ben Brereton, right, celebrates scoring Forest's third goal against Arsenal. Carl Recine / Reuters
Nottingham Forest's Ben Brereton, right, celebrates scoring Forest's third goal against Arsenal. Carl Recine / Reuters

It is another indication that standards can slip: not all of the time, because Arsenal can still mount fine extended runs and turn in terrific performances, but more often than was the case. Wenger accused Arsenal of repeating the same mistakes against Forest; some would say they have been doing that for years. Because, while the cast list was different, many of the failings were familiar.

There was a lack of intensity, and too many of Arsenal’s more chastening games have come against teams who seem faster and fitter, more organised and coherent. There was the disastrous defending and, while the first team requires one rather more, it was compounded by the absence of a quality defensive midfielder, the type of player who defined Wenger’s first great team and which he now refuses to buy.

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It was another defeat on the road and Arsenal’s away form – they have as few points as Leicester City and Watford on their travels – threatens to cost them a top-four finish.

If the selection of Mertesacker in a back four was a misjudgement, there have been others from a manager whose decision-making was long inspired. Whereas Liverpool benefited by keeping an unsettled Philippe Coutinho for a further five months, ramping up his fee as he played well, Alexis Sanchez’s price has dropped and he has generally failed to reproduce his best form. Rebuffing Manchester City’s summer offer was a £60 million (Dh298m) gamble that looks like failing.

Arsenal's Per Mertesacker and Mohamed Elneny look dejected after being dumped out of the FA Cup by Championship side Nottingham Forest. Mike Egerton / AP Photo
Arsenal's Per Mertesacker and Mohamed Elneny look dejected after being dumped out of the FA Cup by Championship side Nottingham Forest. Mike Egerton / AP Photo

Arsenal are now the outsiders in the three-horse race for fourth place, something that, despite Wenger’s recent gripes, cannot just be attributed to refereeing decisions. Finish fifth or sixth, lose Sanchez and Mesut Ozil for nothing and decline would appear to be both entrenched and accelerated.

Because while the League Cup still provides a chance of Wembley glory this season and the Europa League an opportunity to qualify for the Uefa Champions League, there was something symbolic about the loss to Forest. It was another day when Arsenal could reflect miserably on how things were and how they are now. The context is changing for the great constant.

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