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John Brewin profile picture  By John Brewin

The many false dawns at crisis-hit Arsenal under troubled Arsene Wenger

Arsenal humiliated. Arsene Wenger barracked by the fans. Players wanting to leave. Farce repeating itself time and time again. The inquests, the outrage and the helplessness that followed Sunday's 4-0 defeat at Liverpool has become as regular an event on the English football calendar as the FA Cup third-round draw.

There have been so many false dawns since Wenger's "Invincibles" of 2004 claimed their last league title and were surpassed by Chelsea, Man City, Manchester United and, arguably, local rivals Tottenham in the years that followed.

Here's a look at some of them...

The opening of the Emirates

The overriding logic of leaving Highbury to move to the Emirates, its capacity 60,000 compared to the former home's 38,419, was to flush the club with the type of gate money that Manchester United made from Old Trafford's capacity of 67,000 (which has since risen to 76,000). It was a decision made in 2000, amid a very different landscape that did not take into account the huge sums that meant TV money would dwarf matchday revenue in the future.

It also failed to predict the influx of money that billionaires would plough into Chelsea and Manchester City, knocking Arsenal down the rich list. Instead, the cost of financing the Emirates clipped Wenger's wings in the transfer market. An inaugural 1-1 draw with Aston Villa on Aug. 19, 2006 foretold a troubled existence in a new home.

"It's a fantastic stadium and it needs a fantastic team. We believe we have a great team here and we want to challenge for the title and the Champions League." -- Wenger, July 2006.

Dreams of winning the Champions League

May 5, 2009 was the last time Arsenal competed properly on the European stage. In reaching the Champions League semifinal against Manchester United, they hoped to bury the ghost of 2006, when they had lost 2-1 to Barcelona in the final. Instead, while seeking to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg, they were destroyed by Cristiano Ronaldo as Sir Alex Ferguson's men won 3-1 on the night.

Wenger's team featured burgeoning stars Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie -- players who looked capable of emulating the achievements of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira -- but all would eventually move on in search of honours.

The Champions League would become a theatre of humiliation; last season's 10-2 aggregate embarrassment by Bayern Munich the latest in a long line.

"I am very confident that the team will produce a magnificent performance and that we will qualify."  -- Wenger, May 4 2009.

Manchester United swept Arsenal aside the last time Arsene Wenger's men reached the Champions League semifinals.

Steve Bould arrives as assistant coach

As Wenger's Arsenal faded from prominence, nostalgia flared for his first great team, the one with a defence inherited from predecessor George Graham. Steve Bould, a centre-half of distinction whose habit was to tackle first and ask questions later, was promoted from the youth ranks to replace long-term assistant manager Pat Rice in May 2012.

Arsenal began the 2012-13 season with three clean sheets, yet ended it finishing fourth, a place below the previous year. They conceded 12 fewer goals, but Bould's influence, and the zonal marking system he later brought in, did not endure. By December, Wenger was forced to deny a rift with his assistant.

Wenger continues to be as all-powerful on the training ground as he remains behind the scenes. These days, as those same defensive mistakes are repeated, Bould is as ripe for criticism as his boss.

"Steve's qualities are that he has the experience of the top-level game. He knows our football philosophy and therefore there will be a continuity."  -- Wenger, May 2012

Arsenal have spent big on star names but Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil's futures may lie elsewhere.

Wenger spends big at last

Once the Emirates was no longer such a financial burden, Wenger was permitted to reopen the coffers. And while he remains careful in the transfer market, with the books as close to being balanced as any of Arsenal's peers, he regained an eye for the big deal.

Mesut Ozil, signed in 2013 from Real Madrid for £42.4 million, and Alexis Sanchez, signed from Barcelona for around £35m a year later, were received rapturously by supporters, but what have they changed? Arsenal finished second in the 2015-16 season but could never put in a credible challenge to runaway champions Leicester. And, after a winning goal by Danny Welbeck defeated Leicester 2-1 on April 14, 2016, Arsenal lost their next two matches.

None of the big-name buys could prevent a 3-2 loss at Manchester United, or a home defeat by Swansea City, and lately, with neither having signed new contracts, Sanchez and Ozil have become part of the problem, rather than the solution. While Sanchez has largely run himself into the ground for the cause, Ozil's flakiness has become a lightning rod for criticism.

"This is an exciting day for all of us. We have signed a world-class player who is one of Europe's brightest young talents."  -- Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis, September 2013.

A British core

The photo has become notorious, with Wenger beaming over Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as they signed new deals in December 2012. There was Theo Walcott, too, but beyond Ramsey, who gave possibly a career-low performance at Anfield last Sunday, and Oxlade-Chamberlain, set to leave for Chelsea or Liverpool, none are now a first-choice selection.

When Gibbs joined West Brom in a £7m deal on Wednesday, he became the first of the group to flee the nest. The rest remain contracted to the club despite having not much of a future. Jenkinson will likely depart on another loan and, after a year spent on his own loan at Bournemouth, Wilshere (perhaps the brightest star of all) is looking for anywhere to play after a career ruined by injury.

"I believe when you have a core of British players, it's always easier to keep them together. We are delighted that these five young players have all signed new long-term contracts. The plan is to build a team around a strong basis of young players in order to get them to develop their talent at the club." -- Wenger, December 2012.

Arsenal's British core has failed to deliver.

Winning the FA Cup

From winning the 2005 FA Cup final to winning the same competition in 2014, and then twice more in 2015 and 2017, Wenger survived a trophy drought that threatened to define his career. He was also the victim of being mocked for the concept of the "fourth-place trophy," whereby qualifying for the Champions League registered as success, despite the pain that usually greeted Arsenal in Europe's knockout stages.

The fate of other recent FA Cup-winning managers is instructive. Though winning the trophy in 2013 for Wigan landed Roberto Martinez the Everton job, Louis van Gaal was sacked despite lifting it for United in 2016, while Roberto Mancini was deposed by Manchester City on the eve of that 2013 final, no matter what happened. The world's oldest competition is not seen as enough by the clubs Arsenal aspire to compete with, yet in both 2014 and 2017, winning it was used as justification for the penning of a contract extension.

"It was an important moment in the life of this team. To lose would have been a major setback but to win will be a good platform to build on."  -- Wenger after beating Hull City 3-2 in 2014's final.

Time for change?

Wenger's continuing presence at Arsenal, and the club's unwillingness to cut the cord, is widely put down to the detached, publicity-shy stewardship of majority shareholder Stan Kroenke, who has held the financial reins since 2011. Arsenal, until last season, qualified for the Champions League every year, and Wenger meanwhile did not overspend the kitty.

In April, CEO Ivan Gazidis told a fans meeting that Wenger must become a "catalyst for change" for the club if he were to stay on past the summer. Gazidis, appointed to his position on the approval of Wenger in 2008, and Kroenke stand accused of letting Wenger have far too much control, and for presiding over the decay that has been in evidence for so long.

The shame of Anfield and lengthy contractual wrangles with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ozil and Sanchez suggest all is not well behind the scenes.

That lack of bravery and enterprise in decision-making suggests no catalytic changes have been made. Under Wenger's control, the false dawns continue to stack up.

"Our ambition is to win the Premier League and other major trophies in Europe. It's what the fans, players, staff, manager and board expect and we won't rest until that is achieved. Arsene is the best person to help us make that happen. He has a fantastic track record and has our full backing."  -- Kroenke, after Wenger signed his May 2017 extension.

John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.


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