There were those who asked themselves the question before Arsenal's Champions League last-16 first-leg tie against Bayern Munich, at roughly the same time as Arsène Wenger, his words dripping with contempt, took the media to task at his explosive press conference: how many of the Arsenal squad would make it into the Bayern team?
By 9.30 on Tuesday night, the question needed to be reworded: would any Arsenal player make it into this Bayern team, the one that resembled a machine, whose parts clicked seamlessly and whose power was, frankly, intimidating? Jack Wilshere would vie for selection and the thing that elevated his gutsy performance was that he frequently resembled a one-man band. Arsenal's No10 did not have the support of a Bastian Schweinsteiger or Javi Martínez or Toni Kroos.
And that, folks, is it. On the evidence of 90 minutes when Bayern seized on Arsenal's first wobble to take such a stranglehold that it felt as though they came to play a little within themselves, the difference between the clubs prompted two more questions. For Arsenal it was not so much the 3-1 defeat – hardly unexpected – rather, how had they come to lag so far behind one of Europe's elite clubs? Secondly, and perhaps more urgently, how do they pick themselves up to ensure they are not cast further adrift?
Forget the second leg in Munich on 13 March; Arsenal's season has distilled into 12 Premier League matches, beginning at home to Aston Villa on Saturday, in which they must make up the four points on fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur that currently separate them from readmission to the Champions League. The good news is that they are against teams on their level, apart from the fixture with Manchester United, who have long since galloped into the distance and might even arrive at the Emirates Stadium on 28 April as champions.
And so it will boil down to whether Arsenal can rise above the suffocating tension to express the talent they possess. One of the many paradoxes about this squad is that, according to Wenger, they have tremendous mental strength, the ability to recover from setbacks, and ignore the background chatter and analyses of the many pundits and experts for whom he has developed such distaste. And yet these are the players who cannot seemingly begin to play with freedom until they are a goal or more behind.
Wenger said on Monday that Arsenal's slow starts were caused by "psychological" factors, which he did not want to go into, but it is alarming, to say the least, to hear a manager highlight such an area of weakness. In this calendar year the team has conceded first-half leads in five of its seven league fixtures. Bayern were 2-0 up after 21 minutes.
The talk from the Arsenal dressing room took in the need to learn from what went wrong on Tuesday, even if it seemed to be an old chestnut that remained uncracked. The thought also occurred that knowledge alone might not have been, nor will be, enough against the Germans.
There was soul-searching, particularly on the issue of the first-half concessions, and an element of helplessness. Theo Walcott, one of the few players who has consistently shown character this season, made the point that the team had actually looked sharp at the very outset. But Kroos's seventh-minute opener had stemmed from Arsenal sloppiness, which has been the recurrent, jarring theme.
"It's hard to get it because it's happening most weeks," Walcott said. "We didn't really have a slow start, it was just sloppy goals … goals that could have been avoidable, I felt. We've got some great talent in that dressing room. It's just putting it all into one bowl."
The message was that it was futile to dwell on the defeat; heads needed to be raised as big games loomed. After Villa it is the derby at Tottenham. "We've just got to start believing again," Walcott said. "I think that's one of the main things – believe in how good we are, because we didn't show it against Bayern."
Arsenal will surely be no better than a top-four team with no trophies for another season and it is the glass ceiling of the fair-to-middling, of the merely passable, that has drawn supporters' ire. To some of them Wenger has set the bar high and is now falling below what is expected. The Frenchman's win percentage in all competitions of 47.5% is his lowest since 1996-97, his debut season at the club, when it was 44.4%.
The psychological reasons are one thing but, when a club sells its best players for massive money and signs new ones in the £10m-£13m bracket at best, it is difficult to move forward, let alone reach for the stars.
Arsenal bemoaned how their hands were tied over the sales of Robin van Persie last summer and those of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fábregas in 2011, in that the players made it plain that they wanted to leave and, in the case of the first two, had entered the final year on their contract. The cash raised totalled £77m but it did not entirely compensate for what the deals said about the club's ambition or foresight. Alex Song also departed last summer for £15m.
It is the manner in which funds have been invested, or otherwise, that has been as much of a problem. The summer of 2011 saw Wenger change tack on the transfer market, as he sought more seasoned professionals such as Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta. Last time out he signed Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla. Each one has been good, sometimes very good; Cazorla has shown flickers of real inspiration. But none of them feels like a player from the top echelon or, to put it another way, a player who would make the Bayern team.
Then there are the mistakes, such as Andrey Arshavin, Sébastien Squillaci, Gervinho, André Santos, Park Chu-young and Marouane Chamakh; the last three number among the players Arsenal have out on loan.
Wenger has money to spend, pots of it, but he has ignored the clamour to make a £20m-plus statement signing, which could energise the squad as much as the supporters. One generally gets what one pays for these days but there is the fear that, if Arsenal do not make next season's Champions League, they could struggle to attract players with over-the-odds offers.
Wilshere, meanwhile, has targets that are loftier than a top-four finish – and the ability to fulfil them. He will not tread water at Arsenal indefinitely.
Arsenal rarely enjoy respite from pressure. The coming weeks will be of huge significance for the club.
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image: © Ronnie Macdonald