By Josh Clarke
Arsenal's 2-1 loss at Old Trafford definitely won’t last as long in the memory as last season’s 8-2 mauling, but the comparably abject nature of the performance leaves a taste in the mouth that is just as bitter for Gunners fans.
What the north London club's supporters must truly be unable to stomach is that this time, the goals scored by Robin van Persie will not be there to save Arsenal from potential free-fall, with the luxury of playing badly but still winning a distant memory.
A look over Van Persie’s remarkable 2011-2012 goalscoring stats is hardly worth the effort when the Dutchman served up the perfect reminder of what his effectiveness in front of goal can mean for a team - as he effectively killed his old club off after three minutes at the weekend.
A bright-eyed start to the Gunners’ attacking outlook this season has been quickly superseded by a collection of dour and feeble spectacles by the men trusted with the task of hitting the back of the net.
Indeed, Arsenal’s commendable Premier League-topping defensive record is danger of counting for very little.
Lukas Podolski, after impressing initially, has given a more realistic projection of his season’s overall tally in the last few weeks, while Olivier Giroud has shown only occasional flashes of why he was deemed fit to be the club’s only direct positional replacement for Van Persie.
Gervinho’s quick-fire equalling of last season’s dismal tally proved a false dawn, with his continued deployment as centre-forward met with derision by Gunners fans and Theo Walcott – whether it be down to niggling injury after niggling injury, unproductive contract talks or vocal disenchantment – looks unlikely to be slung in up front.
Simply put, Arsenal do not currently have an attacker who can fire them to a top-four finish, with the club’s regular command of possession in Premier League matches beginning to embody the ‘sterile domination’ Wenger accused Barcelona of last year.
The Frenchman’s experimentation with an interchangeable front-three demonstrates that no tactical manifestation of the team is as important as finding someone, anyone, to play centre-forward and score goals habitually.
When the Gunners face Schalke on Tuesday evening, they will come face-to-face with a striker who they know from first-hand experience can do just that.
It was Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s vital 76th-minute strike in Arsenal’s last Champions League outing which handed Schalke command of the game, leading to a first home defeat to a non-English side in the competition since September 2003 for the hosts.
Huntelaar sunk an incredible 48 goals in 47 games for the Germans last term, the most impressive season in a career which was only slightly curtailed by a spell where he was, arguably, much underused and underappreciated at Real Madrid and AC Milan. Critics point towards a one-dimensional aspect to Huntelaar’s game and a lack of pace but the sheer wealth of footballing clichés about the importance of putting the ball in the back of the net tells another story.
With the target man entering the final few months of his three-year contract at Schalke and seemingly unwilling to discuss an extension, a serious enquiry from the Gunners must surely be at hand, especially with Liverpool being repeatedly linked to the player.
That’s if the idea of the acquisition of a prolific 29-year old Dutch striker who looks keen for a new challenge isn’t too painfully close to home for Arsenal. Regardless, the fact that Huntelaar would be available at a fraction of the price received for Van Persie in the summer should remove any doubts left lingering at boardroom level.
Goals provide excellent smokescreens for the shortcomings of any club and in the void left by the disappearance of Van Persie’s abundance of strikes, AGM meeting squabbles and inappropriate shirt-swapping have taken on a much more sinister significance at the Emirates.
Arsenal have endured their worst start to a domestic campaign under Wenger and are in unfamiliar losing territory in Europe. The only way to stop the rot is to increase productivity in front of goal and with this looking unlikely to come from the current playing squad, Wenger could do a lot worse than to add Huntelaar to his ranks come January.