Jim White

Arsenal in crisis as Wenger’s failings exposed

Now that is what you call a crisis. Beaten by a League Two side when you field your strongest available team: no other term will do. Worse, Arsenal's defeat to Bradford was not an isolated error, a blip in otherwise unsullied progress. It was part of a horribly emerging pattern.

It used to be called Valley Parade but now labours under the name the Coral Windows Stadium (what a romantic image that conjures). But for Arsenal this week it was the last refuge. The competition that Arsene Wenger used to disparage had suddenly become a route to purposefulness.

In the Capital One Cup (again, what unfathomable depths of romance are summoned by these sponsored titles), with the draw opening up tantalisingly, here was a real chance of silverware. Almost as good an opportunity to end the trophy drought as he had in the same competition back in 2011. But again Arsenal blew it.

Instead of Wenger plotting a move on Wembley, Phil Parkinson's well marshalled, brave and determined side march on, heading for the semi-finals where they will brilliantly earn sufficient cash to wipe out the last of the debt that has hamstrung the club for so long. No one can begrudge them their moment. Not after all the pain the club has suffered since its ill-starred attempt to borrow its way to Premier League stability.

Except perhaps Arsenal fans. For the Gunners and their manager that was a disaster. The game showed up the team's every failing: lots of possession, little to show for it and a big hole at the centre of defence.

But the thing which will most frustrate the several thousand Londoners who ventured north last night is the fact it need not have been like that. They will have watched with horror on Sunday as one of their own demonstrated precisely how to win a football match (and no, I don't mean Samir Nasri's feeble wall building).

The sight of Robin Van Persie celebrating victory at the Etihad must have been the most painful of the season. Because they know he didn't have to go to Manchester. Allowing a player at the very peak of his power to join a rival is a fundamental failure of football management. And Arsenal have done it on six occasions in the past four years.

Imagine what a team including Van Persie, Song, Fabregas, Clichy, Nasri and Toure would have done in Yorkshire last night. Not lose that's for sure. Now we hear that Theo Walcott is likely to join them on the route out of the Emirates. Apparently talks have reached the end over his new contract and he will be able to pick between United, City, Chelsea and Liverpool in January, all of whom are seemingly more than willing to pay him whatever he wants to secure his services.

If he goes, Arsenal's increasingly shaky claim to be a competitive top-four club will finally depart out the front door. Especially if Nani comes in the opposite direction.

The sadness is that Arsenal run themselves in the sort of way that, in any other line of business, should generate sustained and lasting success. Not for them living beyond their means. Their huge income from their new stadium is largely employed to pay down the debt incurred in building it: as sound a principle as you could wish for (although it has to be said that United managed to remain more than competitive while completely rebuilding their own stadium).

Furthermore, the manager's ability to scout and develop talent remains the club's main asset. Jack Wilshere's unflagging midfield performance last night may never have been seen had Song, Nasri or Fabregas remained at the club. Certainly we would not have witnessed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's nerveless penalty.

The trouble is, Arsenal have not only weakened themselves by letting go those they have nurtured, they have strengthened their rivals. And in football, the successful team is the one that always builds. If your rival has someone better than you, you do whatever it takes to steal him. You don't let your rival have your best.

The truth is, as the club built its glittering new home, a money-printing factory, it allowed its team to decline post 2005. Sure, in theory, there is something admirable about refusing to fuel the ludicrous inflation of players' wages. But in reality, when rivals are only too willing to do just that to tempt your best talent, it is self-defeating. Especially when ultimately it is those players that the customer will pay big money to come along and watch. This is the footballing fact the Arsenal board seem to have forgotten: in the end, it's success that people want to see.

Of course Wenger still produces marvels. Who wouldn't want Santi Cazorla or Wilshere in their team? The trouble is, the way Arsenal go about their business, whoever fancies them will eventually be able to take them. And if that is allowed to continue as a policy, nights like the one in Bradford will become the norm, not the exception.