An excusable, overdue blip for an otherwise impressive team or the perfect expression of the systemic failings which indicate Arsenal have no chance of winning the title?
The true significance of Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Everton will only be established in time but at the very least, a damaging result exposed some of the major faultlines which have undermined Arsenal over the past decade and may yet do so again.
There are two strands of doubt which seem to infect Arsenal every season at some stage, contributing to their inability to challenge at the top of the table, and both of them came together in one desperately poor moment at the end of their match at Goodison Park on Tuesday night.
Mesut Ozil has been in impressive form this season and no player should be condemned on the basis of one singular incident but his contribution to Everton’s winning goal was simply pathetic. As a playmaker he is arguably without peer in the Premier League, but this was a terrible defensive lapse, for as much as what it said about the player and his team as the effect it had on the match.
With four minutes to go and Arsenal under pressure after losing the lead, Ozil looked over his shoulder and saw Ashley Williams lurking in the box. He then turned his back on the Everton defender, flinched and moved his head away when the corner came and threw up his hands in exasperation when, surprise surprise, an unopposed Williams buried the header.
The first point is that something has gone seriously awry if Ozil is being tasked with marking Williams at a corner. That points to flaws in Arsenal’s defensive preparations which were already being broadcast for the first goal when Seamus Coleman arrived completely unmarked to head in from Leighton Baines’ cross.
There does come a time at least once in every season where fans start to reflexively wonder just what it is that assistant Steve Bould is doing on the training ground every week, or whether Arsene Wenger actually listens to one of the great modern Arsenal defenders and pays enough attention to the defensive side of coaching. Typical stories from December 2012 and November 2014 portray these concerns, which are never sufficiently allayed.
When all is right with Arsenal, goals are being scored and 14-game unbeaten runs are being constructed. In times like these, it is easy to appreciate the world class work of Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, or the promise of Alex Iwobi, but bubbling under are those reservations about Wenger’s defensive aptitude. It is likely no coincidence that Arsenal were without Shkodran Mustafi against Everton, as the summer signing is yet to lose a game and without him, the team looked far more vulnerable. Perhaps he was helping to paper over some cracks.
The second point surrounds Ozil’s inexplicable act of avoidance. It speaks to the persistent impression of Arsenal as a team who, when it comes down to it, just don’t have the fight in them. The accusation that they lack certain qualities, often expressed as quintessentially English, required to win the Premier League is a familiar one. This was supposed to have changed this season. Wenger made a big point of the fact that he had finally assembled a squad of “men”, and yet on Tuesday night he was lamenting the fact that Everton’s “very physical game… disturbed our game”.
Ronald Koeman even made it explicit. Explaining how Everton turned the game around after Sanchez’s deflected free kick in the first half, he highlighted Arsenal’s soft belly: “The weakness is if you go face to face and be aggressive and you win the battle,” he happily explained. James McCarthy was the snarling face of this successful strategy as Arsenal acquiesced.
The two strands came together in Ozil’s remarkable evacuation of duty and responsibility but this is about more than one player. Maybe this is just part of the process. Arsenal have only lost two matches this season — the same number as Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham — and it would be unfair to heap scorn on a team that has shown genuine improvement, on the basis of one match. But if nothing else, the Everton performance has shown what Wenger has work to do if things are to be different this season.
Tom is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport