Arsene Wenger called Stoke’s goal on the weekend a “nice gift from the referee,” which, based on the performance of his own team, is a fair attempt at forcing attention away from the poor effort from Arsenal.
Stoke or not, this was a game Arsenal couldn’t afford to lose. It hammers home the importance of two points dropped against Manchester United, when those whose glass is half full tried to dress up the situation as a valuable point gained rather than two lost.
Arsenal now hold only two Premier League wins from their last six, both of which came against teams currently in the bottom five of the league.
What has angered some supporters is the story told of the season at present: Liverpool, on 59 points, are surging up the league and stand a chance of winning the title; Arsenal, on 59 points, are in free fall and looking further and further away from ending the silverware drought with the Premier League trophy.
It could be said that those who are telling that story are doing so with an agenda. If Liverpool have a chance at the title, why not Arsenal, who are their equals and who have been atop the Premier League table for longer than anyone else this season?
What it needs is context. Arsenal, in some areas, are running on empty. The lack of investment at centre-forward will remain the key theme from this season for the club, where failure to buy may decide the fate of the team. Some already believe the game is up on that basis alone.
The wider problem is that Arsenal had something supporting them in their stay at the top of the league table: having beaten the lesser teams in the league with ease, something other title contenders haven’t always been able to do.
Who cares which team is on the opposing end, as long as three points are gathered? But Arsenal don’t have that anymore. Stoke may have beaten Chelsea, Manchester United and taken points off Manchester City, but Arsenal, based on results of the season, should have beaten Mark Hughes’ side. For the title race, they had to beat Hughes’ side.
How many within the club believe that maximum points can be attained from the four fixtures which see Arsenal face Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Everton? If the players are holding a brave and even confident face behind the scenes, supporters certainly aren’t. And we know how influential a downbeat fan base can be at the Emirates.
It’s hard to say that Stoke was just one of those games for Arsenal, largely because in March a team who considers themselves genuine title challengers can’t have ‘one of those games’ against a far inferior side.
There is still a lot of points that can be won between now and the end of the season, and with no one yet to show the kind of consistency that would label the title theirs to lose, Arsenal may still be in with a shout.
The reality is the team’s form. The worry is what has come before. The loss at Stoke may just be a prelude to what may come later on this month, where little doubt will remain about Arsenal’s faltering credentials in the title race.