Gunners reduced to the ranks

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The Independent Online

There is no aura quite like the one of invincibility. It wrapped Mike Tyson in a fearsome cloak. In the shape of Don Bradman it cosseted Australia through a vicious depression and it can lead to statements that in retrospect appear quite astonishing.

There is no aura quite like the one of invincibility. It wrapped Mike Tyson in a fearsome cloak. In the shape of Don Bradman it cosseted Australia through a vicious depression and it can lead to statements that in retrospect appear quite astonishing. When Tiger Woods won his first major, it was suggested quite soberly that, so powerful was his driving, golf would become a one-man show until his retirement.

The trouble with invincibility is that it is a simple spell to break. It goes with a single defeat and sometimes, as with Tyson after his meeting with Buster Douglas, it never returns. Arsenal have now rejoined the ranks of the distinctly "vincible" and if, minus their captain Patrick Vieira, they lose to Chelsea on 12 December, Arsène Wenger may find the Premiership gap unbridgeable.

Although he has created excellent teams, Wenger has two blots on his record: he has never retained the championship and his impact in Europe has been minimal. Both result from the smallness of his squad.

In May 2002 at Old Trafford, Sylvain Wiltord scored the goal that in Wenger's words "shifted the balance of power" in English football from Manchester to London. The side that took Arsenal to the championship then is essentially the same as it is now. For two years the same group of men has been at full pelt, unleashing unforgettable displays of football, but always prone to stumble. In the spring of 2003, it cost them the title. This run of one Premiership victory in six matches might be similarly decisive.

After every reverse, in particular the draws against West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace, teams that Chelsea and Manchester United overcame with relative ease, Wenger intoned the same mantra, that his boys were tired. It cannot have been short-term fatigue; after returning from Old Trafford on 24 October to flying to Eindhoven on 23 November, Arsenal never left London. It was deep, long-term weariness, as ingrained as the dust in a miner's palm. While they were winning, the adrenaline might have sustained them but the defeat at Old Trafford has taken a lot of recovering from. When asked if he should rest Thierry Henry, Wenger replied bluntly: "I can't."

He is reliant on Henry to an unhealthy degree. Last season the man nominated for the title of World Footballer of the Year, scored 41 per cent of Arsenal's goals. At Old Trafford, Ruud van Nistelrooy accounted for 31 per cent of United's. As Henry's form has dipped, Arsenal have been dragged down with him.

Wenger has been preparing for Arsenal's future: Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Mathieu Flamini and Quincy Owusu, boys who humiliated the old pros of Everton and Manchester City in the League Cup, are testament to that. However, in the week Arsenal came to the blue half of Manchester for that tie, both United and Chelsea fielded "reserve" sides in the competition worth respectively £35m and £90m. With Arsenal preparing to bleed itself to fund the move to Ashburton Grove that is not a chasm that will close.

Arsenal have been afflicted by short-term injuries. Their bleak November has coincided with the loss of Sol Campbell to injury and the absence of high-class defensive midfielders in the shape of Edu and Gilberto Silva. And it may not be a coincidence that they have not kept a clean sheet for a dozen fixtures. Their former captain, Frank McLintock, was scathing about Arsenal's vulnerability to the set-piece, especially their inability to win crucial headers, which cost two points against Southampton.

When Arsenal won the title in 2002 and 2004 they kept 15 and 14 clean sheets from 38 matches, which at 39 per cent or just under is a usual amount for a title-winning side, though in 1991 George Graham's immaculately drilled back four managed 24. So far, Arsenal have four shut-outs in 15 matches; Chelsea boast 11, Manchester United can point to eight.

Graham thought Arsenal should begin to "win by playing ugly football" something that came easily to his own teams but will not to a side that rely so much on touch and confidence.

At the club's training complex at London Colney, even the youth teams are schooled in a certain way; the lovely passing game that has illuminated the Premiership since Wenger's arrival at Highbury. It may not be a coincidence that Arsenal were knocked out of the FA Youth Cup last season by a Southampton side prepared to rough them up.

It is a tactic that has been used with success in the Premiership. Crystal Palace and West Brom flooded the midfield, denied Arsenal space and time and suffocated them. After the 1-1 draw at Highbury, Bryan Robson commented that they had succeeded because they did not panic after going behind and they knew Arsenal could be rattled. In other words, they knew the aura was broken.