Arsène Wenger still clings to fading hope of top four
Bolton Wanderers 0-0 Arsenal: Statistically, this is among the worst sequence of results Arsenal have endured since Arsène Wenger, bespectacled and his hair still brown, became the last manager to pass through Highbury's marble halls.
His side has taken a single point from four games and had Arsenal been beaten it would have been the first time that they had lost four straight matches since March 1995 – the time George Graham's regime ended amid the stench of corruption.
Arsenal are now in seventh place in the Premier League, which is roughly where they were when Wenger found them. It would be far, far too trite to say we are entering the last days of Wenger. Arsenal remain England's most credible candidates for the European Cup this season but, domestically, they appear in a cul-de-sac, largely of their own making. Here, last spring, the manager had given a familiar concession speech as a challenge for the title collapsed, now the distant, diminishing prize is fourth.
"Journalists always talk like that," said Wenger when asked if this was the most difficult hour of his time at Arsenal. "What you are most concerned about is the game you have just played. You don't come in and think: 'this is a difficult period we are going through'. We have had more difficult periods than this even when we were winning championships. Once we did not win for six matches.
"We are confident we can make the Champions League again but I believe we have to produce our form game by game," Wenger added. "To us every game in the championship is now a cup final. We go into a period now where we are playing in the FA Cup and the Champions League and, combined, those three will be difficult. It is important that we don't have more injuries."
Yesterday, Arsenal insisted that the stress fracture Jack Wilshere suffered to his heel would not keep him out for the remainder of the season but it is difficult to see how the midfielder will play any meaningful part in the campaign.
It is probably just as well that Robin van Persie is the most passionate advocate in the Arsenal dressing room that Wenger should stick to his principles. Last night he appeared to be their only plausible architect of victory, driving a fabulous cross from Bacary Sagna on to the post and then sending a delightful chip on to the bar. He resembles nothing more than George Best circa 1971; a brilliant footballer, dragging a faltering team behind him.
There is a tendency for every newspaperman to call any footballer from the Netherlands a Dutch artist even though, metaphorically, the only paints the likes of Nigel de Jong and Dirk Kuyt have ever used is Dulux brilliant white.
However, there is something intrinsically beautiful about Van Persie's movement and in the first half he sent David Wheater one way and then the other before setting up Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for a shot that somehow finished in the crowd.
His night had begun with a deep, wonderfully-struck cross from Thomas Vermaelen that, but for a clearance off the line from Wheater, would have seen Van Persie head Arsenal into the lead in the opening exchanges. With the first period not half over, the Bolton manager, Owen Coyle, had to scream instructions to Gretar Steinsson not to leave himself so exposed at right-back.
Arsenal's outstanding opportunity of the first half, however, came through the middle. Oxlade-Chamberlain looked up and picked out a ball that passed through Bolton's covering defenders and put Theo Walcott clear on goal with plenty of space but rather too much time to pick his spot, which turned out to be the middle of goalkeeper Adam Bogdan's torso. The irritating thing for those who had travelled to Lancashire from London was that he did not even strike it very hard.
They would have known what was coming. Even though Wenger had been able to employ Sagna in his defence for the first time in four months, Arsenal were still undone by the simplest moves – a ball over the top from Chris Eagles that Laurent Koscielny ought to have dealt with but did not which forced Wojciech Szczesny to save well at his near post from David Ngog.
The Pole swore loudly at a defence that has too often betrayed him this season and he was to have further reason to curse when a flick from Wheater, of all people, allowed Ngog a free shot from eight yards out.
The Frenchman, too, swore; not in a violent, accusing way but with a disbelieving shake of the head. He should have scored and had Szczesny not brilliantly pushed the ball away from Mark Davies after the tireless Bolton midfielder had wriggled his way past Per Mertesacker in the final moments they would have won.
Substitutes: Bolton Wanderers - K Davies (Ngog 74), Tuncay (Petrov, 81), Pratley (Reo-Coker 89). Arsenal - Henry 5 (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 69), Rosicky (Ramsey, 80).
Booked: Bolton - Steinsson. Arsenal - Vermaelen.
Man of the match Van Persie. Match rating 6/10. Possession: Bolton 49% Arsenal 51%.
Attempts on target: Bolton 8 Arsenal 7.
Referee C Foy (Merseyside). Attendance 24,371.