LONDON • Arsene Wenger turned on his players after suffering an FA Cup third-round defeat for the first time as Arsenal manager, when the holders lost 2-4 at second-tier Nottingham Forest on Sunday.
Arsenal's players had been convinced that Kieran Dowell had accidentally struck the ball twice when he scored a late penalty for the final goal. But Wenger, who started serving a three-game touchline ban at the City Ground for a clash with match officials, refused to comment on the refereeing decisions.
Instead, he criticised his men for being inferior in every department to the team who are 14th in English football's second tier.
"I have said what I had to say many times and will not talk about the referees," said Wenger, the Arsenal boss since 1996.
"I just think we were not good enough anywhere - not up front, in the middle or at the back - and we paid for it. We repeated the same mistakes - once, twice, three times.
"They were sharp, winning decisive challenges, and dangerous going forward, and overall they deserved to win, as simple as that."
The FA Cup has been the competition that has brought succour to the Frenchman during the twilight of his reign. He has won the trophy three times in four years.
Years since Arsenal conceded four or more to a lower-division side in the FA Cup - 1-4 to Hull in 1908.
Years since Arsenal have gone out in the third round of the FA Cup - the first time under Arsene Wenger.
But failure to put up a strong title defence saw Arsenal fans renew calls for the 68-year-old to be sacked - after the Gunners became the first holders, since Liverpool fell to Bolton in 1993, to be knocked out in the third round by lower-league opposition.
Eric Lichaj had given Forest a 20th-minute lead before firing in a spectacular volley to make it 2-1 after Per Mertesacker's equaliser, all before half-time.
Ben Brereton's penalty gave Forest a 3-1 lead and Dowell's spot kick restored the hosts' two-goal advantage after Danny Welbeck had capitalised on a mistake by Forest goalkeeper Jordan Smith to score.
Centre-half Joe Worrall was sent off late on for a second bookable offence but it did little to detract from the party atmosphere as Forest's success-starved fans celebrated a rare day of glory for the former English and European champions.
"This football club should be playing against the Arsenals of this world and they should be beating them," caretaker manager Gary Brazil said. "I may be a little bit biased but it was a well-deserved win. There were some big performances from the players this afternoon."
Wenger, who denied reports that he was close to signing centre-back Jonny Evans from West Bromwich, defended his decision to experiment with what was in effect a reserve team as their League Cup semi-final first leg against Chelsea takes place tomorrow.
He made nine changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Chelsea in the Premier League on Wednesday, leaving out a host of match-winners including Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey.
"We have a very difficult schedule and many players were on the edge," Wenger said. "I understand the selection will be questioned but we had eight or nine experienced internationals on the pitch and, with all respect, against a Championship team, that'd be the wrong excuse."
Indeed he still had 633 Premier League appearances between his men. Mertesacker was among the experienced players given a rare start but the former German international defender, 33, struggled to cope with Brereton's pace.
"The manager made a lot of changes, gave a lot of trust to players who haven't played a lot recently and I don't think anybody justified their selection today," the captain said. "In the second half, there was a little bit more spirit but, in the duels, they outbattled us."
THE GUARDIAN, THE TIMES, LONDON, REUTERS