It was too early to say Arsenal would win the league when they moved seven points clear a few weeks back.
Similarly, it would be premature to deduce that their title challenge is faltering after coming so spectacularly unstuck against Manchester City, although they have seen their lead cut to just two points after their latest defeat.
The Napoli game was a strange one, with Arsenal needing to lose 3-0 to go out of the Champions League: mindful of the weekend clash at City, they rested some players, eased off and almost suffered the consequences in a 2-0 defeat.
Saturday’s match in Manchester was also unusual in that it could have gone another way had Arsenal not been on the wrong end of a trio of dubious offside calls, a trio of poor Olivier Giroud misses, and a rejected penalty appeal when Pablo Zabaleta handled in the box at 3-1 – although it did seem accidental, those are often given.
But there were some seriously worrying signs that Arsene Wenger must swiftly nip in the bud if he is to stop the rails coming off Arsenal’s bid for silverware for yet another campaign.
Arsenal, so the legend goes, play great football but fall to pieces under pressure, whether applied by a top side or self-imposed when facing weaker teams in crunch matches. That theory has been lived out through nine trophyless seasons, and a decade-long wait for a league title.
The 6-3 scoreline was a touch harsh on Arsenal given the overall balance of an enthralling, end-to-end affair, but so many of the goals resulted from individual or collective errors that you have to wonder why the levels of concentration were so poor.
One of Arsenal’s success stories this season has been the rejuvenated partnership between Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. Prior to today, Arsenal had only conceded 11 goals, the best record in the Premier League, but even before Koscielny was carried off injured before half-time the pair had reverted to the uneasiness of previous campaigns.
Koscielny is quick, good on the ball, reads the game well but is prone to errors; this season he has largely cut them out, but he was all over the place for Sergio Aguero’s opener, and was caught ball-watching when Alvaro Negredo made it 2-1 to City, before injuring himself trying to block the Spaniard’s finish.
Mertesacker was less unsteady but regularly got caught out of position and saw his lack of speed and turning ability exposed with worrying frequency. His aerial dominance rubbed out Negredo’s heading ability, but City simply crossed low instead of high and gobbled up two of their goals accordingly.
Additionally, far too many individual errors were made in possession, with two of City’s goals the direct result of technically-gifted midfielders giving the ball away – Ozil with a sloppy pass for Fernandinho’s curler, and Jack Wilshere losing the ball on halfway for the Brazilian’s second goal.
Of greater concern than unconscionable individual errors was the wider malaise of the team performance.
Arsenal’s game is based as much on incessant high pressing as it is about slick possession football.
But, following the substitution of Mathieu Flamini and with Arsenal chasing the game, they had all-but given up on their collective spirit. Wenger should not need to remind them that their success going forward is as much a result of their ability to hunt down the opposition in packs as any individual brilliance.
Wilshere’s ill-advised gesture to City fans and Ozil’s petulant refusal to applaud the away fans will draw criticism in the Sunday papers, and while their acts were not the reason Arsenal lost, the wider learning is that egos have been left unchecked in the dressing room.
Wilshere had a poor game and arguably should not have started ahead of the experienced Mikel Arteta, who it seems was punished for his red card in Naples. The England midfielder does not always behave professionally off the pitch, and an apparent belief that he is the victim of a media witch hunt must be rubbed out sharpish.
Ozil, meanwhile, impressed in flashes but looked disinterested when City were attacking – while Theo Walcott shone alongside the hit-and-miss Giroud, Ozil’s justifiable focus on creation means he cannot be carried defensively in a four-man midfield.
Arsenal were exposed in parts of the pitch they usually control, and for Ozil to be both effective and protected, it must be one or the other with Walcott and Giroud.
His ill-advised pass to Flamini for the Fernandinho goal probably would not have happened in such a vital part of the pitch had the Germany playmaker been operating in his natural position. He does not press in the same way that others do, and therefore his brief must be solely creative.
Wenger’s management style is based on trust but the last few games have seen that belief in his charges questioned. There comes a point when a manager has to lay down the law to his players, particularly regarding the big games.
Ultimately, a defeat to the best attacking unit in English football – and probably one of the top three in the world – should not be seen as a marker of failure. But if Arsenal are to be in the mix come early May, it is essential they show more discipline on and off the pitch.
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