LONDON (AP) — Lurching from one disappointment to another, Arsenal seems further away than ever from ending a seven-year wait for silverware that is testing the patience of fans and ramping up the scrutiny on long-serving manager Arsene Wenger.
The most troubled season of Wenger's 16-year reign reached a new low when a virtually full-strength Arsenal was eliminated on penalties by fourth-tier Bradford in the League Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday.
The exit was arguably the most embarrassing loss under Wenger, raising fresh questions about the quality and strength of a squad weakened each summer by the sale of its top players. "I think Arsene Wenger has done a great job," former Arsenal defender Frank McLintock told The Associated Press. "But it's becoming more and more obvious that you can't keep selling your best players and expect the same results."
Along with Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, Wenger is seen as having the safest job in English football and the Arsenal hierarchy has always given its strong backing to the well-respected French coach.
However, supporters — paying some of the highest ticket prices in the country despite assurances that cash isn't in a short supply — are unhappy at the direction the club is heading following the high-profile departures of Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas — along with a slew of other players — in recent years. Some are questioning, for the first time, Wenger's judgment and his faith in players who don't seem up to the task.
In an interview with British football magazine Four Four Two, conducted before the Bradford loss, Wenger revealed his frustration at losing his top players over the past two years. "You could feel the potential was there, and I thought, 'OK, let's do this together,'" he said. "Then the team split up, sometimes after five or six years' work. It is frustrating, you have to start all over again.
"We have lost recent players earlier in their careers. To lose Van Persie, Fabregas, Nasri and (Alex) Song in just two years, it is a massive amount of potential. Of course you worry." Wenger can't be accused of underestimating Bradford, which lies 65 places below Arsenal in the football pyramid. Of his first-choice lineup, arguably only three players — Mikel Arteta, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud — were missing as Wenger reversed his long-held policy of fielding his fringe players for League Cup games.
Arsenal started with 10 full internationals, and three more came on as substitutes. Worryingly, though, Bradford was the equal of Arsenal for long patches and caused all sorts of danger for a brittle visiting defense on a freezing night at Valley Parade.
Up front, Arsenal posed few problems, only having its first shot on target in the 69th minute and failing to turn possession into chances despite have five attackers on the pitch towards the end of the second half and in extra time.
"We played with a very offensive team and, for over an hour, played with five strikers but couldn't score," Wenger said after the 3-2 loss on penalties, which followed a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes. "You feel embarrassed when you don't give everything but I feel the team did fight and they will be more disappointed and frustrated."
Arsenal's route to silverware this season lies in tatters. The team is seventh in the Premier League — 15 points behind leader Manchester United — after 16 games and not expected to trouble Europe's best sides in the Champions League despite qualifying for the last 16 with a match to spare, albeit from an easy group.
Throwing money at a problem isn't Wenger's style but January could be a big month for him, with reinforcements clearly needed to bolster his strike force and add some steel to central midfield and center back. The club's cash reserves stood at 154 million pounds ($249 million) in May but Wenger's first signing may yet be 35-year-old Thierry Henry returning on loan from New York Red Bulls for a third stint at Arsenal.
"I don't think we can keep letting our best players go and buy players who aren't as good," said McLintock, who captained Arsenal when the club won the league-FA Cup double in 1971. "This team, if we look at it, is not nearly as strong as the ones Arsene Wenger has had in the past 15 years."
For so long considered the "Barcelona of English football" because of its attractive passing game, Arsenal can no longer console itself with that tag either. Wenger's team has been outplayed by Swansea and Norwich — two of the lesser lights in the Premier League — already this season and been humbled by United at Old Trafford, a deceptive 2-1 scoreline flattering Arsenal. Schalke also gave Arsenal a footballing lesson in the Champions League, winning 2-0 at Emirates Stadium in October.
Arsenal plays Reading, Wigan, West Ham, Newcastle and Southampton — five teams in the bottom half of the standings — over the next three weeks, which will give a real indication of the side's hopes of qualifying for the Champions League for a 16th straight season.
Wenger believes that achievement is as much a sign of success as winning trophies, and finishing fourth will be the main aim again this season. "Where does it leave our season?" Wenger said after the Bradford loss. "To focus on the next game — sport is about that."