Arsene Wenger last night conceded Arsenal's title chances were over and took full responsibility for a sixth season without a trophy.
After consecutive draws against Liverpool and Tottenham, the Arsenal manager accepted they had to beat Bolton Wanderers yesterday to have any chance of overhauling Manchester United in their final four fixtures. However, a 2-1 defeat, with both Bolton goals coming from poorly-defended set-pieces, ensured that the gap with United is now an unbridgeable nine points.
"Our chances are minimal now but we have to continue to fight," Wenger said afterwards. "We have dropped too many points in this game. It is very frustrating to get just two points from a possible nine but that has been the story of our season."
Before and after the match, Paul Merson, who briefly played for Wenger at the start of his 15-year reign at Arsenal, accused the club of not bringing in players with sufficient leadership ability. "We have seen this kind of failure happen too frequently for it to be coincidence," he said. "Arsenal's failure is that they cannot understand that the final five games of a season are played entirely differently to the first 33."
"If anybody is to blame, it is me," Wenger said. "I pick the team, I choose the players and for me they have had an outstanding attitude all season. It has been very unsatisfactory." Asked if this season had been harder to take than their last campaign, when they also collapsed in the final few fixtures, Wenger agreed it was. "It is harder to take because this was one of the easiest run-ins we have had for a long, long time," he said. "But too many times we did not take our chances and that is frustrating."
This summer is likely to be different. There have been persistent calls for Wenger to buy an experienced centre-half and goalkeeper and significant money has been set aside for this. And for the first time Arsenal will embark on a Far East tour to raise money – something their manager has always fought against.
Yesterday, Wenger conceded that Arsenal were a club lacking defensive maturity. In a critical week they conceded a penalty in each of their last three games and six goals. Had Kevin Davies converted a spot-kick awarded after Johan Djourou's challenge on Daniel Sturridge, it would have been seven.
"The potential is still there but we are in a job in which you have to take your chances," said Wenger, arguing that the principles of attacking football he has instilled since his arrival in 1996 should not be sacrificed.
"You have to be realistic and we still lack something in maturity and experience in important situations," he said. "When you don't win, you are questioned about your principles but, if something is wrong in our team, then it is not that. We still lack something, whether it is experience or the ability to be calm in these situations.
"If you can convince me principles are wrong, I am ready [to listen]," he said. "We try to play football the proper way, like we did today. You have to step back and look at it from a distance before you decide whether you do something else. If something is wrong in our team, it is not the principles."
Nevertheless, their last three games have reinforced Sir Alex Ferguson's remarks on Friday that although Arsenal had the "better footballers", Chelsea, and by implication his own Manchester United side, were "the better, stronger team".
"I'm convinced we are still a good footballing side," said Wenger. "We have not been stable enough defensively. We have conceded six goals this week and you can't afford to concede six goals in three games in April and win the championship. Defensively we have been too frail."
The Bolton manager, Owen Coyle, lauded not just the result but the performance of his players after last weekend's disaster at Wembley when his side lost 5-0 to Stoke in the FA Cup semi-final.
He said: "We were obviously intent on trying to win the game but the biggest thing today for me was we gave a big performance. We showed strength of character, resilience, everything you could ask of a group after having such a horrible day. We could have gone 2-0 in front and then Arsenal scored within a minute and, given last week, it would have been easy to feel sorry for ourselves. But we didn't do that, we got blocks in, and it was fitting that Tamir got the winner on such a wonderful day."
Sturridge said: "After last week's result we wanted to come here and show the fans we had the passion. A lot of fans were very unhappy with last week, we did this for the fans."
Substitutes: Bolton M Davies (Muamba, 71), Cohen (Sturridge, 85), Klasnic (Elmander, 90). Arsenal Chamakh 5 (Song, 65), Arshavin (Walcott, 73), Ramsey (Wilshere, 84).
Booked: Bolton Muamba, Taylor, K Davies. Arsenal Song, Wilshere, Chamakh.
Man of the match Sturridge. Match rating 8/10.
Possession: Bolton 41% Arsenal 59%.
Shots on target: Bolton 7 Arsenal 10.
Referee M Jones (Chester)
Race for the title
* Manchester United
Arsenal (a) Sunday; Chelsea (h) Sun 8 May; Blackburn Rovers (a) Sat 14 May; Blackpool (h) Sun 22 May
Tottenham (h) Saturday; Manchester United (a) Sun 8 May; Newcastle (h) Sun 15 May; Everton (a) Sun 22 May
Manchester United (h) Sunday; Stoke City (a) Sun 8 May; Aston Villa (h) Sun 15 May; Fulham (a) Sun 22 May
* Odds: Man Utd 1/14 Chelsea 7/1 Arsenal 80/1