Did pre-season friendlies begin early?
Or did this lacklustre performance against Crystal Palace sum up why they don’t deserve to be title contenders?
This was an opportunity to go third in the Premier League, above Manchester City, and only two points behind deadly rivals, Spurs.
There was a chance, mathematically at least, to keep hopes alive that Arsene Wenger’s men could catch leaders, Leicester, with five matches to go in an unpredictable season.
But despite all those incentives, Arsenal produced a slovenly, uninspired, and feckless performance, to draw 1-1 against a Palace team that enjoyed only 28% of possession, but which still had the tactical nous to leave with a point.
Even the impetus of a goal from Alexis Sanchez, right on the stroke of half-time, wasn’t enough to lift Arsenal above mediocrity, or to raise the pulse of the home crowd.
Instead, they were booed off, as Yannick Bolassie equalised after 81 minutes, to give Palace a result that all but confirms their place in the Premier League next season.
But, Arsenal fans are again asking what has to be done to change the continuing malaise at a club that has frustrated and disappointed for so long.
The run-in for Arsenal includes a must-win fixture against a belligerent West Brom this Thursday, plus away games at Sunderland and Norwich — both battling against relegation — and an even bigger test against top-four rivals, Manchester City. And, make no mistake, the undercurrent of dissatisfaction at the Emirates, held at bay for so long, is bubbling menacingly to the surface again.
Wenger said: “I’m very, very disappointed. It’s one of those days where you don’t want to do a press conference, because it’s nothing pleasant to talk about. It’s very frustrating.
“Usually, we create a high number of goal chances, but today we didn’t create enough.
“We lacked a bit of sharpness. Maybe, as well, a bit of freeness in our head, after the result at West Ham. We failed to do the job and we didn’t play with enough pace.”
The result all but ends Wenger’s unlikely dream of finishing as champions. “I’m not in that kind of mood to dream about the championship.”
Arsenal had the majority of possession, with Mesut Ozil and Alex Iwobi showing flashes of inspiration, but they created little to show for it against a Palace side that was clearly thinking about next weekend’s FA Cup semi-final clash with Watford.
Ozil came closest, denied by Palace ’keeper, Wayne Hennessey, before Arsenal eventually found a breakthrough.
It was a stunning goal, too, out of keeping with what had gone before. Mile Jedinak lost the ball on the edge of his own area and Danny Welbeck produced a sumptuous chip to the far post, for Sanchez, who cleverly looped a header into the net.
If anything, the atmosphere, and the match, grew even flatter. Instead, the arrival of Emmanuel Adebayor, Bakary Sakho, and Wilfried Zaha, from the Palace bench, turned the match in Palace’s favour.
Cech tipped a Sakho header over the bar, and then Bolasie struck with a skidding shot from the edge of the area. It beat the Arsenal ’keeper a little too easily, at his right-hand post.
“We had a game plan to subdue Arsenal and conceding before half-time didn’t change it,” said Palace boss, Alan Pardew.
“We knew we could grow into the game and that the attacking subs we had were all going to be significant.
“I’ve seen times before, at Arsenal, where you take advantage in those late moments in the game, and we showed that.
“If you can stay in the game here, then you have an opportunity, because they over-commit at times. I admire that. But it’s also an opportunity for the opposition.”
Cech 6; Bellerin 6, Koscielny 7, Gabriel 6, Monreal 6; Coquelin 6, Elneny 6 (Walcott 84); Sanchez 7, Iwobi 6 (Ramsey 75; 5), Ozil 7; Welbeck 6. (Giroud 75; 6)
Hennessy 6; Ward 6, Dann 6, Delaney 6, Souare 7; Ledley 5, Jedinak 5 (Sakho 46; 7) Cabaye 6, Puncheon 4 (Zaha 75; 6); Bolassie 7, Wickham 5 (Adebayor 72; 6)