By James Goldman
Fine margins often settle fine contests as Arsenal again found to their cost on Saturday, having surrendered their unbeaten start to the season against fellow title aspirants Chelsea.
Defeat, the consequence of diabolical defending in the face of two Juan Mata set-pieces, should not, however, represent a terminal blow to their pursuit of Premier League honours and nor should it trigger the sort of cliched, knee-jerk reaction that dismisses Arsene Wenger’s charges as soft touches.
This was an absorbing contest and although Chelsea just about merited victory and gleefully gobbled up the post-match plaudits, in truth there was little to choose between the two sides and certainly not enough to render one side as cast-iron title material and the other also-rans.
Had Olivier Giroud followed his dart around Petr Cech in injury time with a marginally more precise finish, no doubt the gist of the post-match postmortem would have taken a very different turn with talk of Arsenal resilience, determination and will the overriding themes.
Instead, the all too familiar criticisms – too nice, naive, not ruthless enough – were levelled at a side, who only last week were being hailed for the way in which they refused to accept defeat and came from behind to secure a point, having largely outplayed the reigning champions in their own back yard.
The Premier League table will not make particularly comforting reading for Arsenal in its present state. Already they trail pacesetters Chelsea by seven points and have been overtaken by Tottenham, but it is not Saturday’s defeat that will shape their season. It's more the way they react to it.
At this stage last season, Arsenal were still wallowing in self-pity after a tumultuous summer and only began to find their stride in late October, once the scars of their infamous 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford had begun to heal.
Wenger simply cannot allow the doubt to creep in again. Players such as Laurent Koscielny and Gervinho, for all their ability, are hardly noted for their strength of character, while the early evidence suggests Giroud is cut from the same cloth. The two Ligue 1 imports and the rest of their colleagues must summon a response, their manager must not tolerate a hangover.
A Champions League victory against Olympiakos is a necessity in midweek and could act as a perfect pick-me-up ahead of a testing trip to West Ham at the weekend which, will in all likelihood, tell us all we need to know about Arsenal’s credentials.
Upton Park. An early evening kick-off under floodlights. Sam Allardyce. The possible return of Andy Carroll. All the ingredients for a perfect storm are likely to be present – Arsenal must weather it and overcome it if all of the early-season promise is not to be swept away by a tidal wave of anxiety and self-doubt.
Two wins, three draws and a defeat may not sound like progress, but the results are not an accurate reflection of the job that has been accomplished by Wenger in maintaining a squad that looks to have most bases covered, despite the loss of last season’s talisman and captain Robin van Persie.
The dropping of points at home to Sunderland and yesterday’s reversal against Chelsea, however, means that room for manoeuvre is already at a premium. Nobody delights in lowering Arsenal’s colours more than Allardyce and nobody is more adept at exposing the long-standing susceptibility to set-pieces than the West Ham manager.
Santi Cazorla may have decorated the opening two months of the season, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson have enhanced their reputations no end and Koscielny, along with Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker represent a solid stable of centre halves who have all impressed both individually and collectively this term.
A run of fixtures against West Ham, Norwich, QPR and Reading offers hope of a maximum haul and a much rosier picture as a result. A positive reaction is what Arsenal require, rather than a radical change of personnel or tactics.
Follow James Goldman on