Out-played and out-fought by a Southampton side that had not won since November, this was supposed to be when Arsene Wenger’s side took advantage of their rivals’ failings and won to go top of the table.
Instead, they looked jaded and bereft of inspiration and commitment after conceding a first-half wonder goal to Cuco Martina and then two from the recalled Shane Long either side of a Jose Fonte effort after the break.
Now Wenger has to convince his players and supporters they are not going to bottle it, that they do have the squad to challenge for a title attempt and can only do that by winning today against Bournemouth and taking another three points from the weekend visit of Newcastle.
Without seven potential first team players, the French coach hoped to be able to call on Wilshere early in the new year. But the England midfielder’s return now looks further away.
“I said February but honestly I don’t know,” the Arsenal boss said when pushed on the timescale.
“I let him do his recovery. It’s going slowly. Once he goes again, goes outside to train, once he is back again into sharp, hard work physically, you count five or six weeks, so at the moment he is not there yet.”
“[Wilshere] will not be back before February, that’s for sure. It’s not Jack’s fault we lost at Southampton and anyway he cannot play against Bournemouth [today].
“Hopefully they [the returning players] can give us a push, but for now I’m more focused on Bournemouth and how do we respond because before Bournemouth I cannot change a lot.”
Wenger also played down transfer speculation linking him with Basel’s Egyptian midfield man Mohamed Elneny and Porto’s Danilo Pereira, although the former does seem likely to move to north London this January.
So, for Bournemouth at least, he will have to squeeze the best out of what he has. It is not a task that daunts him, as he explained: “We are a bit short, I agree with you, because of the injuries we have.
“But sometimes the solution is inside and you have to accept that. We are a club which has always given a chance to players we have educated.
“I believe in this team because they have been winning and 80 per cent of the players have not been overloaded, they have not played too many games.
“If you look at the number of games that Flamini, Ramsey, Campbell played since the start of the season, even Giroud was out for a long while, so didn’t play games, Walcott as well has just come back. All these players are not overloaded with games.”
Arsenal have also been linked with Southampton’s Victor Wanyama, but nothing is likely to happen there until the summer at the earliest with manager Ronald Koeman hoping to hold his squad together ahead of what he believes can be a European finish for his side.
The Dutch coach takes his team to West Ham today and is not a fan of having so many games in quick succession.
“I like Boxing Day with stadiums full of supporters, but to play again in 43 hours, it’s not normal.”
One player desperate to play again is striker Shane Long, who made the most of an injury to Graziano Pelle by making Arsenal defenders look like amateurs with his all-action style.
The Tipperary man said: “I’ve had to wait a long time to get a start, but the gaffer gave me a chance and I had to make sure I proved a point and give the manager something to think about.”
“We know the qualities of Shane. A different attacker to Graziano,” said Koeman.
“Everybody needs to improve and to show. Shane was one of the key players to win the game. He was one of the players who created a big problem to the defenders because he had every time very good offensive movement and he was very dangerous.”
Stekelenburg 6, Martina 7, Van Dijk 6, Fonte 6, Bertrand 7, Clasie 7, (Romeu 67), Wanyama 7, Steven Davis 6, Ward-Prowse 7 (Tadic 71), Mane 8 (Junanmi 81); Long 8.
Gazzaniga, Yoshida, Ramirez, Caulker.
Cech 6, Bellerin 6, Mertesacker 4, Koscielny 5, Monreal 5, Flamini 6 (Chambers 73), Ramsey 6, Campbell 5, (Oxlade-Chamberlain 64), Ozil 6, Walcott 6 (Iwobi 78); Giroud 5.
Ospina, Gibbs, Gabriel, Reine-Adelaide.
J. Moss 6/10.