Arsenal’s latest capitulation gives Arsene Wenger plenty to ponder this summer

Late-season collapse highlights familiar problems for trophyless Gunners

IT WAS a good thing the Premier League title wasn’t at stake at the Britannia Stadium on Sunday.

If it had been, one could only have hoped that Arsenal would have found a better performance than the one they produced in an abject display from Arsene Wenger’s side.

All their well-documented flaws were in evidence at a venue that has fast become a nemesis for the Gunners – this was their third defeat in four visits to Tony Pulis’s Staffordshire fortress.

Arsenal know what to expect in this game, but they cannot cope with it and Wenger himself offered few excuses after watching his title dream finally extinguished in quite miserable fashion.

“That’s the Premier League. If you do not turn up with the same competitive spirit in every game you can lose games everywhere, and especially at Stoke,” said a rueful Wenger. “It was a disappointing performance. The competitive level of Stoke was higher than ours.”

Having spent almost 15 years in the job, Wenger is not one for knee-jerk reactions to individual results, but he acknowledged that this team, in which he has invested so much faith this season, have run out of steam just when it mattered most.

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Defensively Arsenal were awful on Sunday, collectively not mustering a challenge for the opening goal, failing to close Jermaine Pennant down for the second and then Johan Djourou making a hash of a clearance to present Jonathan Walters with a third to kill the game off just seconds after Robin van Persie’s goal had provided late hope.

“We lost the game because Stoke defended much better than we did and with much more purpose,” admitted Wenger.

“We [have] conceded, I think, 21 goals from set-pieces and only 18 in open play. Less than anybody else in open play but we have been caught on set-pieces. For the first goal, [Kenwyne] Jones didn’t even need to jump to head the ball in.

“That is something we have to correct. It is the easiest thing to correct in the game but you still must understand the flight of the ball and want to be first to the ball. I feel we are sometimes a bit naive.”

It is the kind of display that has become a feature of recent seasons, but Wenger was not in the mood to start drawing conclusions on the campaign before it is complete.

“This team has done well overall this season,” said the Frenchman. “This is not the best moment to analyse [the season] after a disappointing game.

“If you analyse all the competitions and how we have done, we have done well. Something has gone [and] you could see that today. We have to take a distance and make the right analysis of the season.”

That analysis will take place in a fortnight’s time, and this year it may perhaps have damning consequences for some of the Gunners’ stars.

Everywhere you looked on Sunday, there was an Arsenal player under-performing, and it was not just the defence.

From the anonymous wide men Andrey Arshavin and Theo Walcott to striking substitutes Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh, Arsenal seem to be carrying an awful lot of dead wood at the moment.

A look on the bench merely confirmed that feeling. The third substitute Wenger used was Tomas Rosicky, a player who has had negligible impact again this season.

Alongside him sat Sebastien Squillaci, who has comprehensively failed to fill the role of defensive understudy, and Emmanuel Eboue, a player whose six-year Arsenal career dovetails nicely with the silverware vacuum during that entire period.

There are others who were not present on Sunday who may have played their last games for Arsenal – Manuel Almunia, Denilson and the on-loan Carlos Vela among them, while Abou Diaby’s form and fitness have also left much to be desired in over five years at the club.

Wenger’s problem as he weighs up his squad this summer is one he is well versed in – he will have more trouble keeping the players he does want to stay than shipping out any others.

Barcelona will come knocking for Cesc Fabregas as soon as they have finished another stellar season, while Samir Nasri has not yet agreed to extend his contract which expires in just over a year’s time.

The same is true of Gael Clichy, who has also attracted the interest of Barcelona. Kieran Gibbs is touted as a potential successor at left-back, but on Sunday he showed he still has plenty to learn about the art of defending.

Some would say that the same could apply to the whole Arsenal team, and they would have a point.