Arsene Wenger admitted in midweek that Arsenal had paid a heavy price for failing to turn the screw on an out-of-sorts Everton.
He was frustrated, but also bullish and realistic. These things happen, he said. After all, Arsenal hadn’t lost since the opening day of the season.
For the most part, the fans were forgiving, too, but we knew, ahead of Sunday’s trip to the Etihad, that there was no margin for error. You might get away with one limp away performance over the course of a season. Screw up again, within a matter of days, and it can derail your title challenge.
Right now, in the aftermath of a painful, 2-1 defeat at Manchester City, it’s very difficult to see us ending our title drought in May. The Premier League is unforgiving. Arsenal fans know that better than most.
Last Saturday week, the Gunners were top of the table, albeit only for a matter of hours, having beaten Stoke.
Now, we’re nine points behind Antonio Conte’s in-form Chelsea and sitting in fourth place.
The Blues’s eleven-game winning streak has to come to an end, and there are sure to be a few more twists and turns, but I’ve seen this movie before.
We pip Spurs and seal qualification for the Champions League; a tournament we’re not good enough to win.
Wenger will be apoplectic. He won’t turn on his players in public, he never does, but behind closed doors he’ll be furious that we failed another big test in Manchester.
Earlier in the season, we got away with a point at Old Trafford, despite our players running around the pitch like they were wearing lead boots.
Today, we started brightly, but were made to pay the price for an abject second-half performance. Every pundit under the sun will be questioning our mental strength. Again. Not even the most optimistic Gooner is likely to offer a defence.
The two statistics that really stand out?
Theo Walcott’s fourth-minute strike was our only effort on target in the whole match. That’s just not good enough, especially given that City looked completely bereft of creative guile in the first-half. For the record, we only had one shot on target against United, too.
Attacking worries are coupled with defensive frailties. Arsenal have not kept a clean sheet in 12 games. That’s a run that includes failing to keep Premier League opponents at bay on eight occasions — the worst run of Petr Cech’s career. Sure, the defence has had to cope without Hector Bellerin and, more recently, Shkodran Mustafi, but their absences are not an excuse.
The most galling thing about the defeat against City was our inability to wrestle with the swing in momentum. A silent Etihad turned rowdy after Sane’s goal and our heads dropped.
We stopped running, dropped deep, and seemingly lost all confidence in our technical quality. I lost count of the number of times we wildly hacked at clearances.
So where do we go from here? It’s a conversation that will dominate Christmas lunch in Arsenal households.
There will be the usual calls for us to splash the cash when the transfer window opens in January, but I can’t see that happening. We’re going to need our bountiful cash reserves to supplement the wage demands of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. And you’ve got Danny Welbeck and Per Mertesacker due to return. Obviously, we’re missing the injured Santi Cazorla, whose brilliance will need to be replaced in the long-term.
If anyone has any suggestions on this front, I’d love to hear them. So far, I’ve read names that aren’t even worthy of cleaning the Spaniard’s boots, let alone of filling them.
The key, right now, is for the current squad to get their heads down and respond like they did after the opening day defeat to Liverpool. It’s West Bromwich Albion on Boxing Day, then league encounters with Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Swansea, Burnley and Watford. All games that, on paper, we’d be expected to win.
Whether we’re still in touch with Chelsea when we then visit Stamford Bridge, in early February, remains to be seen.
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