Soul-searching is rarely a pleasant process but it is less painful for the pragmatist than the idealist. There is no doubt which category includes Arsene Wenger. When an entire footballing philosophy is called into question, the most fervent believer will suffer, but an inquest is nevertheless required at the Emirates Stadium.
Within four games, Arsenal have exited the FA Cup and, effectively, the title race. In the last two, they have suffered contrasting, and equally demoralising, defeats to the two sides above them. Manchester United outplayed them; Chelsea, with their blend of know-how, resilience and the irrepressible Didier Drogba, merely beat them. Arsenal had 58 per cent of the possession at Stamford Bridge and provided some examples of exquisite passing, particularly from Cesc Fabregas, but the result was utterly predictable. It is telling that, of Arsenal's six league defeats, four have come against Chelsea and Manchester United and another away at Manchester City; they are a side with a habit of failing their sternest tests.
Diminutive and equipped with elan, they scarcely fit the stereotype of flat-track bullies, but they have not displayed the character of champions either. They are entitled to argue that the compilers of the fixture list have displayed a cruelty by pitting them against Aston Villa, United, Chelsea and, tomorrow, Liverpool in succession. It has served to highlight Arsenal's failings, their inability to deal with the intimidating Drogba, their habit of being caught unprepared by swift counter-attacks and their faulty last line of defence.
For them, the transfer window may have closed a week too early though, as Wenger objects to giving in to public opinion, is reluctant to pay over the odds and tends to confine his knee-jerk reactions to questionable assertions in post-match interviews. The summer was always a more likely time for change. The last 10 days have provided irrefutable proof that surgery on his squad is necessary, but it can be performed without butchering his blueprint. Incessant passing and fluent football are not deterrents to success - look at Barcelona - and nor is it impossible for youthful teams or spendthrift managers to prosper.
The answer lies in either penalty area. Manuel Almunia's fragility has been apparent for much of the season, but United exposed it. A world-class goalkeeper can obscure mistakes elsewhere on the field, a substandard one underlines them. Almunia, a natural deputy, belongs in the latter group, as does his understudy, Lukasz Fabianski, so culpable in the FA Cup defeat to Stoke City. At the other end, Wenger's charges have lacked the ruthlessness that Wayne Rooney and Drogba demonstrate on a weekly basis. Arsenal are unfortunate that Robin van Persie has been ruled out for the season, but deprived of their finest forward and without a specialist finisher, they have struggled in the biggest games.
It has not helped that Eduardo has never recaptured the sharpness he displayed before breaking his leg two years ago, that Nicklas Bendtner, the one target man at Wenger's disposal, has been sidelined for much of the campaign, or that Theo Walcott, whose acceleration means he should offer another dimension, has been ineffectual when available. That has served to exacerbate the similarities between Fabregas, Andrey Arshavin, Denilson, Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky, all short of stature and all liable to create more goals than they score. Their often glorious likenesses leave Arsenal open to the accusation they are one-dimensional.
Reflection should show that two players, rather than a radical overhaul, could refute that and transform their fortunes (providing that the right two were recruited). It should also show that keeping Arsenal in the top four while financing a new stadium - and Wenger made a £30 million (Dh171.6m) transfer profit last summer - is no mean feat. The gameplan will not be ripped up, and nor should it be, but matches are won by goalscorers and goalkeepers. And that is the tale of Arsenal's defeats to the two teams above them.
Manchester United 2 Portsmouth 3: well, sort of. Only two of United's five goals were credited to their players, with three debited to Portsmouth's rather hapless defenders. It also continued a rather unlikely trend: nine opposing players have aided the United cause in a similar manner already this season. To put it another way, own goals are proving rather more prolific than Michael Owen.
The dismissal derby was, from a footballing perspective, a dismal derby. But while Liverpool's Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Everton's Steven Pienaar saw red at Anfield - in the South African's case, an hour after he should have done - and Marouane Fellaini was fortunate not to, it is notable that both meetings on Merseyside this season have suited the same players. Serial grafters like Dirk Kuyt, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva made the difference for Liverpool, just as they had done at Goodison Park when the sides met in November.
Neither age nor a lack of practice can blunt a goalscorer's instincts. Limited to one minute of Premier League football in the previous two months, the 36-year-old Kevin Phillips came off the bench to provide two examples of clinical finishing in Birmingham's 2-1 win over Wolves. @Email:email@example.com