By Oliver Platt
They say the league table doesn’t lie, and after their 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Arsenal sit bottom of the pile of the Premier League’s predictable top six teams.
Even Liverpool, a team rebuilding despite Brendan Rodgers’ far-fetched ambitions of something resembling a title challenge in 2012-13, now lie level on points with Arsene Wenger’s team, although the Gunners retain a game in hand.
This is the Arsenal team that have put five goals or more – twice it was seven – past six teams in all competitions this season. Led by Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott, they can be brilliant – but, too, they can be so, so frail and therein lies the greatest frustration.
Cazorla threaded through a wonderful pass that Walcott converted with aplomb to give Arsenal a chance of retrieving something from Sunday’s snowy fixture, but for the most part the Spaniard played in the shadow of his compatriot Juan Mata.
Mata took the game by the scruff of the neck from the start, controlling a long pass and finishing brilliantly to give Chelsea the lead before waiting patiently to pick out Ramires in the area a short time later. The Brazil midfielder was fouled and Frank Lampard dispatched the subsequent penalty.
Arsenal were much better in the second half but it was too little, too late. Before Mata buried the opening goal, Francis Coquelin had been fouled as he moved forward in possession by Ramires. It was a poor challenge and Wenger and his team can rightly feel aggrieved. Nevertheless, Chelsea had an awful lot to do to convert that stroke of luck into a lead.
Their counterattack was devastatingly executed but Arsenal’s midfielders and forwards simply stood and watched, some appealing in vain for a free kick after Ramires’ foul. Abou Diaby attempted to cover his defence and Wilshere made a half-hearted attempt to get back, but Cazorla, Walcott and Giroud simply watched.
Perhaps they were all out of the game and it would have made no difference to the outcome of Chelsea’s break anyway, but it spoke of a lack of determination and a defeatism in the Arsenal ranks. If things conspire against them – as they do every club over the course of a season – the Gunners seem to struggle to muster a response, to overcome obstacles thrown into their path.
Wenger has – questionably – compared finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League as akin to winning a trophy in the modern-day top flight but even that is quickly getting away from them.
Tottenham, currently occupying fourth spot, have developed the resistance under Andre Villas-Boas that Arsenal have lacked; they arguably do not possess the same star power after the departures of Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart, as well as the retirement of Ledley King, but they are a hardworking, close-knit group who have conceded more than one goal only once since they suffered a heavy 5-2 defeat against the Gunners back in November.
Despite the frequent sales of their best players, talent has not deserted Arsenal. Steel and consistency, though, has, and they will not again be considered among the Premier League’s genuine title contenders until it is somehow rediscovered. The longer it is gone, the harder it will become to retrieve it.
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