When Arsenal’s last unbeaten run of any significance came to an end, we conceded two goals in the North of England, the first of which was a penalty, the second of which was a tap-in. However, on that day was clouded by a sense of injustice. We performed ably, and were unlucky to lose to a Manchester United side who had stolen a fraudulent penalty. Yesterday bore a strong resemblance in terms of the incidents involved, but defeat this time was entirely warranted. We were not up to it, and Boro were excellent. It was, sadly, a game too far.
Four away games in the space of less than two weeks was always going to be difficult, but losing Flamini, Hleb, and Fabregas made it nigh-on impossible. The warning signs came in the second half at Aston Villa. The way they rattled us gave other teams an insight into how best to upset a tiring Arsenal side. We reached a stunning peak of footballing excellence in the first-half at Villa Park, and now we’re coming back down the mountain. We desperately need to address the slump before facing Chelsea in less than a week.
By then, we could have Flamini (and Robin van Persie) back, and privately I still hold out hope for one of Cesc or Hleb. In the meantime, I’d rest as many players as possible in the home game with Steaua on Wednesday – the likes of Sagna, Clichy, Toure, and Adebayor looked genuinely exhausted at Boro.
Perhaps it was Toure’s tiredness that led to him conceding a third minute penalty to the sprightly Jeremie Aliadiere (whose still a Gooner at heart). Stewart Downing duly tucked it away, and from then on it was an uphill battle. We had begun with the same side who faced Newcastle on Wednesday, and our form had not improved – the leaden-legged Gilberto’s display was symptomatic of a shambolic performance from the entire side.
Bendtner was introduced for the anonymous Eduardo at half-time, but neither he nor the other subs, Walcott and Denilson, could change the fate of this particular match. When Tuncay Sanli powered a rebound high into the net after 74 minutes, it was all over. A late consolation from Tomas Rosicky was nothing more than just that.
Defeat is painful as ever, but Arsene was prosaic in response:
“We can’t complain, we weren’t sharp after four away games. I know the gap is only one point now but we would have taken the position we are in at the start of the season.”
It’s important to remember how far we’ve come, and how many key players we were missing. Before the season, most fans would’ve told you that Cesc and Van Persie would be the most important players in our challenge for honours. And since the season has started, Hleb and Flamini have emerged as being valuable in equal measure.
We’re still top of the table, and still very much in the title race. Manchester United have lost twice as many games as us this season, and I don’t see them panicking.
There is a long way to go. Hold on for the ride.