Plenty to ponder as title challenge fizzles out

So in all probability, that’s the league challenge over.

Despite decent patches in most of the last five games – yesterday included for at least an hour – you can’t help but escape the conclusion that we have been deteriorating in a drip-drip fashion for some time now. Rather than going specatacularly off the boil, we have just lost form in stages, meaning that the five point lead has turned into a six point deficit without much ado, indeed until yesterday without losing either.

So we’re in the peculiar position of having lost only two league games, yet being third. Mathematically of course, we’re not out of it, but you’d be a brave man to bet on a first title since 2004 now.

Arsenal going off the boil is a frustrating thing for Arsenal’s fans: the goals dry up, the annoying tics of the players get noticed again (such as Hleb’s achingly frustrating dislike of shooting, or our central defence’s inability to deal with big front men), but that’s the nature of confidence – it’s all in the head.

Wenger’s assertion pre-Sunday that we would still win the league was pretty bold but it’s relatively clear that he said it more to inject some belief into his players than as a statement of fact.

We played well for 60 minutes yesterday without looking superb – but once Chelsea equalised we caved in and we had entirely run out of ideas by the time the winner went in. As I say, confidence breeds confidence and ours has been leaking out since the team decided not to bother with the FA Cup – Champions League notwithstanding.

We’re in an interesting position now. There’s almost no pressure in the league as we are now not expected to win it – so it’s something we need to use to our advantage. Either by playing (to use Wenger’s favourite phrase) ‘without the handbrake on’ or to make some bold changes in the first eleven to shake things up.

I appreciate some of the below has been echoed widely on other blogs but I happen to agree with the sentiments.

So things must be shaken up because they need it, just now. I’m in agreement with those who think some of our fringe players deserve a 7-match run. Walcott should replace Eboue in the midfield and he should stay there. He might be ineffective at stages, he might be electric in periods too, but now is the time to give him a blast. And anyway, can he be more ineffective or more of a liability than Eboue? Eboue just gets picked again and again, but on what grounds?

Ditto Bendtner for Adebayor. As excellent as Ade Cool has been for months, he is struggling for form now. Give him a breather. Bendtner is hungry and his confidence has never been short – so give him some games.

Those two positions can be switched, but we are in a weaker situation with players like Hleb, or Clichy or Sagna, none of whom have adequate top-level replacements. I’m not saying I’d like to swap those latter two round but if they are injured – as is reported – then we might have to. Hoyte and Traore are decent squad players but not up to the task against the big teams – not yet at least. So it does illustrate the point about the depth, quality and experience of the squad, something that was not addressed in January but needs to be in June. Put simply, we have a fabulous and immensely skilful first eleven, but when they are not on form, as now, we have too few options to remedy it.

I agree with arseblogger too about Senderos – he was in his finest form of the season when dropped for the returning Toure. Toure has not justified that decision (something in fact Wenger perhaps tacitly pointed at last night when he said “”I just feel we have some defensive problems that we need to sort out. We… lost control of this game.”) Big Phil should return.

This is a big blip at the wrong time in an otherwise impressive season full of improvement and, at times, excellent football.

I know I can be a miserable old goat but I do try to remind myself of that.

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