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With FA Cup exit, so seems to go promise of a new Arsenal era under Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger has come in for some heavy criticism from the club’s fans in recent weeks, with the pressure set to be ratcheted up a notch or two further after this latest loss, Greg Lea writes from Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger shown during his team's FA Cup loss to Watford on Sunday. Hannah McKay / Reuters / March 13, 2016
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger shown during his team's FA Cup loss to Watford on Sunday. Hannah McKay / Reuters / March 13, 2016

Arsenal’s FA Cup triumphs in 2014 and 2015 were supposed to represent the turning of a corner, successes to usher in a new era of Arsene Wenger’s tenure that would see his side begin to challenge for the biggest honours on a regular basis once more.

Instead, those victories increasingly look like aberrations. Sunday’s 2-1 defeat to Watford saw the FA Cup holders dumped out of the tournament at the quarter-final stage, leaving Arsenal facing the prospect of a ninth trophy-less season in the last 11 years.

Finishing many of those campaigns empty-handed was understandable, with Arsenal unable to keep pace with their heavy-spending domestic rivals between 2005 and 2012 as funds were diverted away from the playing stuff and towards the funding of the Emirates Stadium.

Given that their best players were regularly sold and replaced with relatively unproven youngsters or bargain buys from abroad, overseeing successive top-four finishes throughout that period was an excellent achievement that Wenger was perhaps not given enough credit for.

Read more: ‘I find it a bit boring’ as Arsene Wenger hits back at critics of his Arsenal career

Things have changed now, though, and Arsenal have gone backwards rather than forwards. This season was widely seen as one in which they should contend for the Premier League title and both domestic cups, as well as progressing beyond the last 16 of the Uefa Champions League for the first time since 2010.

Barring a miracle against Barcelona on Wednesday and an incredible turnaround in the top flight – leaders Leicester City are currently eight points ahead of Wenger’s charges – Arsenal will fall short on all four fronts.

“I don’t think we deserved to lose the game,” the Frenchman said afterwards. “We had enough technical superiority to win it. It was about not making a mistake and keeping it 0-0 until the final 20 minutes.”

Arsenal did make errors, however, with Watford causing the hosts plenty of problems on the break. Per Mertesacker and Gabriel seemed unable to contain the lively strike duo of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo, while Etienne Capoue, Ben Watson and Valon Behrami won the physical battle in the centre of the park.

More worrying for Arsenal was the lack of cohesion and incision at the other end of the pitch. The double midfield pivot of Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny lacked creativity and invention – it is no coincidence that Arsenal’s downturn in form has coincided with Santi Cazorla’s absence through injury – and forced Mesut Ozil to drop far too deep to help build his side’s attacking moves.

Olivier Giroud was quiet up front, moreover, and Joel Campbell and Alexis Sanchez were unable to produce any sort of spark on the flanks. Watford – disciplined, organised and extremely well-coached – took full advantage, advancing to the last four of the competition for the first time in 12 years.

The situation for Arsenal looks a whole lot bleaker. Wenger has come in for some heavy criticism from the club’s fans in recent weeks, with the pressure set to be ratcheted up a notch or two further after this latest loss.

Podcast: Discussing two managers under pressure – McClaren at Newcastle and Arsenal’s Wenger

Barcelona will surely end their participation in the Champions League with a comfortable second-leg victory at the Camp Nou this midweek, while Leicester’s clash with Newcastle United on Monday gives Claudio Ranieri’s men the chance to move 11 points clear of Arsenal at the summit of the Premier League standings.

No manager in the history of the game has more FA Cup victories to his name than Wenger, but many Arsenal supporters would have considered this term to be a disappointment had their side retained the trophy but failed to win anything else.

After another substandard performance and result at the Emirates Stadium – this was Arsenal’s third consecutive home defeat, something that has never happened before at their new home – another season without silverware looks a virtual certainty.

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Published: March 13, 2016 04:00 AM

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