Goals cheaply given away. A player gesturing petulantly at the crowd. Another player bawling at a teammate at the final whistle. The manager railing hopelessly against refereeing decisions.
Last Saturday’s defeat to Manchester City last week was troubling to Arsenal not just because it brought them in range of the pack, but it because it suggested old Arsenal were back, the Arsenal who found a way to lose games they should have been winning and were beset by internal squabbles.
Monday’s game against Chelsea is significant as much for how they respond as for the result.
None of the incidents in themselves would be the source of much concern. Managers are forever blaming officials. Mesut Ozil seemed to acknowledge that Per Mertesacker had been right to chastise him for failing to acknowledge the travelling fans; and it could be argued that Mertesacker’s anger was indicative of his self-confidence and his identification with the club
Jack Wilshere was foolish to raise a finger to City fans who had been jeering him, but he will serve his ban and move on. And plenty of other sides will find themselves so overwhelmed by City’s attacking verve that they let in sloppy goals.
The issue is that, together, it all fits with the stereotype of Arsenal as brilliant but flighty. Arsene Wenger has sought to challenge that idea this season, maintaining the problem has never been temperament but money and arguing that the signing of Ozil has changed that.
“It’s more of a level playing field,” he said. “We had restricted financial resources for years. Everybody knows that. It’s simple.”
Whether that is quite enough to explain away his record against Jose Mourinho – played nine, won none – is another matter, although it was notable that the two this season are expressing less animosity than in the past.
The size of the squad, so often cited as the major doubt as to Arsenal’s capacity to win the league, will be severely tested over the Christmas period.
With Laurent Koscielny almost certainly out after suffering a severe laceration of the knee against City, Thomas Vermaelen is likely to come in alongside Mertsesacker for just his second start of the season and will need to be far more decisive than he was against City.
Lukas Podolski is back after a hamstring tear and, although he is unlikely to start against Chelsea, his availability at least takes some of the burden off Olivier Giroud, who looked exhausted against City.
Having protested about a calendar that forced his side to play three tough games last week, Wenger this time benefits from the fixture list, having had nine days to prepare, while Chelsea lost to Sunderland after extra time in a League Cup quarter-final on Wednesday.
“We had three disappointing results – Everton, Napoli and Man City,” Wenger said. “I don’t feel the doubts have crept in. We have been in much more difficult situations. Three big games in six days was difficult and I knew that somewhere, at City, we were in trouble. I feel the team has the power to respond.”
This season, Arsenal have, up till now, bounced back. They responded to losing to Aston Villa on the opening day by winning eight and drawing one of their next nine and, after the defeat at Manchester United in November – the only league game that Vermaelen has started so far – they won three in succession.
Wenger has insisted in the past that his team are more mentally robust than they are given credit for: tonight, against a Chelsea side with concerns of its own, is time to prove it.