The result at Stamford Bridge at the weekend had a depressingly familiar ring about it. In the last eighteen encounters between Arsenal and Chelsea in all competitions the Gunners have only come out on top twice. It is a dismal recent record.
However, the manner of Sunday's defeat was bemusing rather than infuriating. Arsenal actually played alright. They held plenty of possession and created enough chances to have won the match. For once, they didn’t look over-powered by their hosts and looked the better side for long periods of the game. They pinned Chelsea back without, it has to be said, necessarily stretching them to breaking point and produced some good football. And yet, "playing alright" wasn’t good enough and they lost 2-0. So what was missing?
Defensive Lapses Cost Arsenal Dearly at Stamford Bridge
Arsene Wenger bemoaned the number of missed chances. It’s true that the Gunners could have been a couple of goals up before anybody had even worked up a sweat and further opportunities were created as the match wore on. But that is only half the story. It was two lapses in defence that gave Chelsea their openings and the Blues punished their visitors to maximum effect. Arsenal lost the game because of those mistakes rather than their profligacy at the other end of the pitch.
It has been noted many times on this page - and in the comments that are left on it - that it is not possible to just simply try to out-score your opponents every week. Some days, goals are hard to come by and sometimes you have to be able to keep a clean sheet. The Gunners have done that just once in the Premier League this season when drubbing a Blackpool team reduced to ten men for most of the match back in August.
The post-match rhetoric on Sunday rather missed the point in my view. Yes, Arsenal had a bad day in front of goal but days like that will happen. On the whole, scoring goals has not been too much of a problem so far this season. The bigger concern is that the team seem to find it nearly impossible to keep goals out at the other end. If there are any lessons to be learned from the clash at Stamford Bridge, it is that you cannot afford a single slip in concentration when playing teams like Chelsea and the whole team needs to defend far more meanly.
But even identifying that fact, there is a far bigger underlying worry about this current Arsenal team that was highlighted on Sunday. Despite not being over-powered by Chelsea’s physicality, playing alright and having the better of the possession, did they really show the sort of belief that it takes to beat Chelsea away?
This Arsenal team can produce football that is artful and a joy to behold and, on their day, they have the ability to beat anyone. But the question mark that hangs over their head is: do they truly have the winning mentality that it takes to collect silverware? Or are they destined to be "big match chokers" for the foreseeable future?
The head-to-head statistics with Chelsea over the past eighteen games don’t lie. Chelsea are not a better footballing side than Arsenal but they do show a steelier determination and refusal to be defeated far more regularly than the Gunners - and, over the past five years, it is not just in games against the Blues that this criticism of can be made of Arsene Wenger’s players.
Arsene Wenger has shown nothing but belief in his players and his own methods but you have to consider whether some of his current players are deserving of his faith and are actually hungry enough to convert attractive football into trophies. It’s hard to know whether it is possible for the manager to instil that sort of desire and will to win into players that don’t appear to naturally have it. Some players in that squad are real winners but, as a group, do they truly possess that spirit collectively?
Looking at the great Arsenal sides of Wenger’s reign and legendary teams of the club’s history, they all exuded a defiant air of refusing to even contemplate defeat let alone accept it. They hated losing. This current side still has a long way to go to prove they communally have that sort of mentality.