LONDON: In normal times Arsenal’s visit to a Reading side who, newly promoted, sit bottom of the Premier League, would not attract much interest beyond the two clubs and the usual media army.

But these are not normal times for Arsenal. The midweek defeat by fourth division Bradford City in the quarter-finals of the League Cup – on penalties but after ‘only’ a lucky 1:1 draw – has drawn more critical vultures flying over the Gunners.

Arsenal were poor in midweek and manager Arsene Wenger has found himself ever more the lightning conductor for the storm of criticism reigning down on the club.

He has been forced into a robust defence of his players, of his transfer policy, of the club’s safety-first financial strategy, of rarely-seen American owner Stan Kroenke and into denying reports of a rift with assistant Steve Bould.

Chief executive Ivan Gazidis was even forced into coming out and shoring up the verbal defences at a pre-Christmas reception for club members after a run of one win in their last four league games.

Media reports suggest Alisher Usmanov, Arsenal’s second biggest shareholder, will renew calls for widespread changes at boardroom level if Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 16 seasons.

The Uzbek-born billionaire – richer than Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich – owns a 29pc stake in Arsenal but has been shut off from the board by Kroenke and had his offer of transfer cash rejected. He is a firm supporter of Wenger but believes the manager has been undermined by a lack of boardroom expertise.