Gunners reach the crossroads
At times, it can feel like there is checklist of Arsenal's failings, real or imagined. Game by game, they are ticked off: the susceptibility to set-pieces; the habit of conceding late goals; the need for a dominant central defender; the profligacy in attack; the lack of leadership; the psychological frailty.
Arsenal assemble the case for the prosecution and reproduce it with disturbing regularity. The unexpected element was that, for once, Arsene Wenger crossed the courtroom to support some of their arguments. In a season that has nosedived since the Carling Cup final defeat and an era where Arsenal have polarised opinions with their seductive but silverware-starved football, perhaps this was the watershed, the day when the Frenchman accepted the masterplan of economic austerity and football finesse can only take his team so far. Then again, perhaps not.
But as their title challenge came to a depressing and definitive conclusion at the Reebok Stadium, perhaps the most frightening factor was the predictability of it all. This was the Arsenal of caricature, the side whose fragile beauty goes unrewarded because of their own flaws, the talented technicians seemingly condemned to finish third in a two-horse race now. This was justification for the pragmatists in their criticism of the purists.
After letting in a 102nd-minute goal seven days earlier, conceding in the 90th minute was comparatively early. Fergie Time means dramatic, decisive goals for Manchester United; Wenger Time late frustration for Arsenal, and on Sunday Bolton added their names to the litany who have breached the Gunners' defence in the closing minutes. Arsenal's anxiety, like United's buoyancy, turns such strikes into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the process, a match became a microcosm of their season, as Wenger admitted. The reality that the title is not bound for Emirates Stadium made the manager more willing to accept his side's shortcomings. "Our chances are minimal now, that's for sure," he said. "We dropped too many points. It is very frustrating because we should come home this week with nine points and we come back with two. The numbers are the numbers. We conceded six goals this week. You cannot afford to concede six goals in three games, particularly in April."
This year afforded Arsenal's best opportunity to reclaim the title they last won in 2004. "It is very unsatisfactory because that's one of the easiest run-ins we have had for quite some time," Wenger added. "We didn't take our chances many times in the season because the potential is there. We still lack something that is called maturity, experience, calm in key situations."
It was more mea culpa than an assault on the underachievers. "The facts are the facts but I feel the players had an outstanding attitude all season," Wenger added. "If someone is to blame, it is me."
On this occasion, others were culpable, too. Opportunities were squandered at the Reebok, just as they have been over the course of a couple of months: Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri all spurned chances. Only Robin van Persie displays a deadliness in front of goal, scoring with expert precision after a one-two with the captain.
Meanwhile, a defensive generosity manifests itself. In the build-up to both goals, a man was allowed to burst clear of their defence: first Chung-Yong Lee, then Johan Elmander. From the resulting corner, a Wanderer was granted the room to meet it with a powerful header: first Gary Cahill, then Tamir Cohen. The opener was delayed by Nasri's goal-line clearance before it was headed in by Daniel Sturridge. The second was simpler, the replacement Cohen celebrating what Owen Coyle called "an emotional winner". Cohen promptly revealed a T-shirt displaying a picture of his father, the former Israel international Avi, who died in December. "I think it was fitting he got the winner," his manager added. It was less so, but sadly inevitable, that his tribute brought a booking.
While Arsenal's character is invariably questioned, Bolton displayed theirs. Hammered 5-0 at Wembley seven days before, they responded. "What we had to do was come out and give a big performance," Coyle added. "We gave an unbelievable performance." The win could have been more comprehensive: Kevin Davies had a penalty saved by Wojciech Szczesny after Johan Djourou was adjudged to have bundled Sturridge to ground.
Previously one of the most improved players of Arsenal's campaign, Djourou endured an awkward afternoon. The debate about Wenger's failure to sign a commanding centre-half last season has never gone away, but now it may intensify, because when the weaknesses in their candidature are so apparent that even the sometimes myopic manager is accepting some of them, they have reached a crossroads. It is time for change; not at the helm, but in the team.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Daniel Sturridge. A seventh goal of his brief spell at Bolton was one indication of his potency, but his contribution went far beyond that. A delightful flick to release Lee was a sign of his skill and, while the penalty may have been soft, it highlighted Djourou's inability to deal with him.
BOLTON VERDICT: Spirited and determined, they regained some of the pride they lost at Wembley. Employing an open approach against Arsenal can be a risky policy, but Jaaskelainen's saves ensured they got away with it and Coyle, as is his wont, showed positivity in his tactics. It helped that he recalled Taylor in place of Martin Petrov, who was particularly poor against Stoke, and they remain on course for a top-eight finish.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Fabregas and Jack Wilshere played some delightful football at times and Walcott appeared to have the beating of Paul Robinson with ease. Yet Arsenal's inability to turn that into victory was all too typical. Wenger will not abandon his football principles, and nor should he, but the need for a couple of hard-bitten stalwarts to shore up his side has rarely been stronger.