Arsène Wenger, having unsuccessfully championed calls for a winter break for the Premier League, decided to create his own. Unfortunately, it backfired spectacularly against Birmingham City. Six starters – it would have been seven had Tomas Rosicky not gone down with flu – had not featured since New Year's Day but, after the rest engineered by their manager for the FA Cup and League Cup, instead of coming back with batteries charged they found they were flat.
"It's the poorest game we have played," was the Arsenal manager's accurate and honest assessment after dropping points at home for only the second time this season. "We have not done well and that is not the true value of the team. That was our 22nd league game and 21 times we have played well."
Wenger counted himself as culpable as his team but, in truth, he was let down by some of those who he has invested in so heavily, and continually, to such an extent that he again ruled out recruiting any players in the transfer window.
It is a bold decision, particularly as there is a growing sense that Arsenal are running out of steam and desperately in need of fresh impetus. Cesc Fabregas, in particular, was out of sorts with passes going astray at an alarming, unrecognisable rate while Theo Walcott had the kind of wholly ineffective afternoon that leads to questions being asked as to whether he will ever truly make it.
The 18-year-old was playing his third game in a week, which kind of means for Wenger that he is damned if he rests players and damned if he doesn't. "If we had lost because they had played all the games you'd have said they play too many games," he said. "It's easy to find a rational explanation but it's not always the right one. Sometimes football has mysteries and you don't play for 10 days and you are very sharp. But we were not."
They certainly were not. There is another rational explanation and one that Wenger also picked up on. "I just feel we were caught in a feeling, during the game, that it would be easy," he said. "And that's a good lesson for us." It was also a harsh one as the dropped points mean Arsenal limply surrendered their lead at the top of the league.
Dwelling solely on their failings, although understandable given the standards set this season, would, however, do a dis-service to Birmingham and their manager, Alex McLeish, who superbly organised and marshalled his resources. It was a resilient, high-energy performance punctuated by a fearless defensive display by Liam Ridgewell and the bravest of contributions from the captain Damien Johnson, who played just two weeks after suffering a skull fracture. When the Irishman, wearing a protective mask, headed away a fierce drive by Gaël Clichy the visitors' bench was wincing.
"Damien has the heart and he has the sort of character to put his body on the line," McLeish said. "I know that many players I have played with over the years wouldn't even have contemplated that but Damien was a great leader."
The former Scotland coach was buoyant and hopes to be buoyed further this week by adding James McFadden to his squad, although he knows there is competition from other clubs for the Everton striker. "McFadden has got the character to play in a team of mine," he said.
It was a commodity always required at the Emirates, where Arsenal started as if they were prepared to open up the visitors, although a lazy header from Eduardo da Silva, when he should have scored, suggested that too much was being taken for granted. Still, Arsenal pushed ahead through a penalty, awarded when Stephen Kelly took the ball, but also caught Eduardo first, and Emmanuel Adebayor's side-footed spot-kick just evaded Maik Taylor.
Nevertheless, Birmingham felt hard done by and despite Arsenal's supremacy – Taylor saved well from a Philippe Senderos header – they could also point to a rapid break by Cameron Jerome which forced a fine save from Manuel Almunia.
Just three minutes into the second half, however, the Spaniard was static as Arsenal were exposed by that perennial problem, the set piece. Sebastian Larsson's corner was allowed to reach Garry O'Connor, who nodded home. "It wasn't a beautiful football performance," said McLeish. Wenger would agree with that.
Goals: Adebayor pen (21) 1-0; O'Connor (48) 1-1.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna (Diaby, 83), Senderos, Gallas, Clichy; Hleb, Flamini, Fabregas, Walcott (Bendtner, 66); Eduardo, Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Gilberto, J Hoyte.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Kelly, Schmitz, Ridgewell, Queudrue (Parnaby, 61); Kapo, Johnson, Muamba, Larsson; O'Connor (Forssell, 76), Jerome (McSheffrey, 76). Substitutes not used: Doyle (gk), Martin Taylor.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Booked: Arsenal Hleb; Birmingham Kapo, Ridgewell.
Man of the match: Ridgewell.
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