Robin van Persie and Aaron Ramsey shell-shocked at San SiroThat was without question the most chastening week of Arsene Wenger's tenure at Arsenal. There have been low-points before — eight of them at Old Trafford for instance. But what the drubbing in Milan told us about where his Arsenal now sit in the wider scheme of things was not pleasant. This was the week when the rot was finally exposed.
This, remember, was his proper back four on display in the San Siro, back together for the first time in four months. He had said that the most important transfer window for him was the one in the physio's room, the one that would allow him to pick his best players. Injury had hampered everything he was trying to do all year. Well, now he had something approaching his first choice. And look what happened.
He had also said before the game that Tottenham's win against Milan in last season's competition had not been the sort of victory he would go for. Winning on the break: it wasn't something that floated his boat. He wanted to boss possession, not win on the smash and grab. Well, his team shaded the possession stats on Wednesday night. And look what happened.
They were hammered on the break by a team playing the kind of quick, penetrating and attacking football rumour had it had been consigned to the past in Serie A. The irony was not lost on those observing the slaughter, though irony might have made a better defence than the hapless and hopeless bunch in yellow shirts on Wednesday.
But what made his week even more miserable was that one of his own launched a withering critique of where Arsenal now stand. Dennis Bergkamp's interview with the Daily Telegraph's Alan Smith published on the day of the game pulled no punches. Not that it would, the Dutch aren't renowned for equivocating when it comes to an argument. Both barrels blazing, the conductor of the Invincibles was lacerating about current frailties. Arsenal just weren't good enough, he suggested. It wasn't just form they had lost, it wasn't just confidence, it was their very purpose. They had misplaced the knack of playing winning football.
Bergkamp's observations — horribly prescient as it turned out — prompted several papers to run comparisons of the 2004 giants with the current side. It did not make pretty reading. Of the team that was hammered in Milan, only Robin van Persie would have a hope of getting into the great unbeaten side of last decade. As an analysis of Wenger's failure properly to rebuild it was acute.
For Bergkamp, Arsenal were an accident waiting to happen. And the pile up occurred on Wednesday in Italy. That was the moment the frailty of the current squad was utterly exposed. There was no hiding behind misfortune or injury. And to be fair to Wenger, he didn't hold back afterwards. He looked shell-shocked. His team had been awful, he said. They simply weren't at the races.
Though he did try a bit of unconvincing kidology before departing on what must have counted as the most dispiriting plane journey of his career. The comeback starts against Sunderland, he insisted. Then we would see the true character of his team.
In short, as has become his default position since his last great team was broken up by powerful predators, there was the promise of jam tomorrow, which is never the most palatable of offers when the present is so wretched.
Perhaps the only crumb of comfort for Wenger is that when it comes to comparisons with the past, both Chelsea and Manchester United's present resources would look similarly diminished. Man for man neither club is as good as it was when they contested the Champions League final in 2008, replacements for the departed coming up short while those that are left behind face an unwinnable battle with quickening chronology.
But the fact is, it is Arsenal who are suffering most obviously in the new era of City and Spurs. And there is not even the comfort, after Wednesday, of a consolation run in the Europa League, something which has buffed up both United and City's confidence nicely as the Premier League reaches its denouement.
Wenger was right about one thing, though. This weekend's game with Sunderland now has huge significance. For the first time in more than a decade, were the malaise of midweek to be repeated against Martin O'Neill's resurgent Wearsiders, Wenger could be out of contention before the end of February. That is a shocking possibility.
The manager will no doubt be insisting to his beleaguered dressing room that a victory in the Cup is all they need to prove to themselves that Bergkamp is wrong, that they are winners, that they do embody the old Gunners spirit. Besides, a trophy is a trophy: win this one and the floodgates will open in the future. The trouble is they will have heard all that before. It is what he said a year ago, just before they faced Birmingham in the Carling Cup final. And we all know what happened then.