Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has conceded his rebuilt team are 'very far behind' the genuine trophy contenders at the top of the Premier League after their latest defeat at Old Trafford.
The narrow nature of the final score line as Manchester United beat the Gunners 2-1 win on Saturday disguised the alarming gulf in class between the two sides and Wenger has been honest enough to accept Arsenal have ground to make up if they are to challenge the top three in England's top flight.
When asked whether his side are realistic challengers to Manchester's big two and Chelsea, Wenger responded: "At the moment you cannot say that we are because we are far away," accepted the under-pressure Arsenal manager before insisting he has not given up on closing the gap in the coming months. Being with the top three is still the target by the end of the season.
"We've played away at United, City, Liverpool and Stoke, so we've many difficult away games. We have got positive results and the 1-1 at Man City was a good result. We didn't suffer there by comparison to the United game."
Wenger accepts his side's defensive performances have dipped after their promising start to the season as he admits his side look vulnerable when they are put under pressure.
"I just think we are not on full cylinders and looked much more vulnerable defensively than we did at the start of the season," stated Wenger. "There's no obvious reason for that. Also, United have quality up front. They score against everybody and they scored against us as well.
"We had a lot of the ball, but didn't do enough with it. You feel it was a bit of an illusionary domination. We had a lot of the ball but they created more chances and deserved to win the game."
Wenger went on to claim Patrice Evra 'made the most' of the challenge that led to Jack Wilshere being sent off at Old Trafford, as he accused referee Mike Dean of being naïve.
"The red card was very harsh," added the Arsenal boss. "When you tell a player, 'For the next foul you're going to get a second yellow', it is a signal to everybody in the opposing team to dive. Of course they then do it. If you get a warning, you are saying to the other team that with the next foul, if you dive, the player is off. Why do referees do that? It's absolutely naive. To me, Wilshere's tackle looked a regular challenge."
Meanwhile, Wenger is reported to be furious with much maligned full-back Andre Santos after he was caught by TV cameras at Old Trafford swapping shirts with former Arsenal team-mate Robin van Persie at half time in Saturday's match, with the Daily Mirror claiming Wenger demanded an explanation from his Brazilian defender and left him in little doubt that the gesture was not appropriate.
Arsenal fans reacted furiously to Santos' memorabilia hunt, with supporters who were already calling for the struggling full-back to be replaced flooding social networking sites to condemn his moment of inappropriate mid-match affection with Van Persie.