In his 21 years in charge, Arsenal had never before gone out of the FA Cup in the third round, but Arsene Wenger’s gamble with his squad for Sunday’s 4-2 defeat to Nottingham Forest backfired.
His team selection was generally understandable. He rotated heavily after a hectic festive schedule and although his faith in certain players seemed misplaced when the final whistle went, you could see why he picked the team he did.
The big problem was with the bench which had little in the way of seniority — only Calum Chambers has more than handful of appearances — and almost nothing to help change the game if that were to be required. Which, ultimately, turned out to be the case.
With all due respect to Eddie Nketiah, Chuba Akpom and Jeff Reine-Adelaide, they’re not players you could be sure of making a telling contribution. Whereas Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and Jack Wilshere provide you with the assurance quality should you need it.
Yes, the schedule has been trying, and Arsenal have players out through injury who would have otherwise been involved, but there was no good reason to eschew experience so completely. It was a gamble, and Wenger admitted as much afterwards.
“Many times we got away with it,” he said after. “Not today.”
What it highlighted was the increasing gaps in the Arsenal squad that have been exacerbated by the two-tier system that has been in operation throughout this season. There’s the Premier League selection, and the Europa League/Carabao Cup selection, and in an ideal world it should have been a positive thing.
The players would not be fatigued by midweek action when it came to league games, and the so-called fringe players would play competitive football and take their chance to remind the manager what they were capable of. Instead, the paucity of their performances in the two cup competitions mean the first team players have little or no pressure on them, and in some ways the chopping and changing from one competition to the next has prevented the team building any real momentum.
What we saw at the City Ground was a sad indictment of the squad Wenger has built. Senior players, some of whom who are no longer capable at the top level, failed to perform, and the young talent at the club was left floundering without the requisite guidance.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Rob Holding, Alex Iwobi and Reiss Nelson are clearly talented but the cycle for a young player at the club seems too familiar. They get picked, impress, plateau, their confidence drops, they struggle and they rarely seem to be given the help required to get them beyond that level again. Rinse and repeat.
At the other end of the scale, Per Mertesacker looks like a man who has gone on a season too long. The heroics of the FA Cup final last May will remain legendary, but he was exposed by the youthful running of 18-year-old Ben Brereton and his manager’s insistence on playing him in a back four.
Mathieu Debuchy wants to leave while Theo Walcott is a shadow of his former self and at this point, the best thing for all parties is a move away. Danny Welbeck scored but illustrated that he’s a player Arsenal should be willing to upgrade if they’re really serious about rebuilding the squad.
Looming large over all of this are the contractual situations of Ozil, Sanchez and Wilshere, while there are a clutch of players heading towards the final 12 months of their deals when next summer arrives.
So, not only do Arsenal have a massive job to do when it comes to what happens on the pitch, they have just as much to do off it, and faith in Wenger as the man to preside over it all continues to wane.