Arsenal's defeat at Stoke showed why they are the runt of the top six litter

Mark Critchley
Arsenal's defeat at Stoke showed why they are the runt of the top six litter

While previewing the start of the new season two weeks ago, most pundits and punters alike would have picked the same top six as each other, only in different positions. Save a few optimistic Evertonians, it is safe to say that most expect the champions Chelsea, the Manchester clubs, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Arsenal to take up the six berths at the top of the Premier League table.

Ordering them is more difficult. City are favourites, but Chelsea's pedigree and United's summer business make them hard to ignore. Tottenham have been there or thereabouts for two years now and Liverpool looked like Chelsea's closest challengers last season until absences affected them in the New Year. All five were thought to be contenders this time around but hardly anybody considered Arsenal. The defeat to Stoke City on Saturday showed why.

READ MORE: Stoke v Arsenal - how the match unfolded

READ MORE: Stoke 1 Arsenal 0 - FULL MATCH REPORT

Arsène Wenger cried foul in his post-match comments, claiming that Alexandre Lacazette’s disallowed goal should have stood and that overall, his side were victims of some close refereeing calls. It was not an unreasonable defence but even then, he only made it after criticising his players for making the same mistakes he has criticised them for in the past. Most damning of all, Wenger himself admitted that the defeat, which came courtesy of a debut goal for Stoke loanee Jesé Rodriguez, was a “big three points” to lose because it was a fixture that their rivals would typically take something from.

Stoke deserved their victory but Mark Hughes' side still have questions to answer in what is likely to be a make-or-break season for his tenure. The Potters, tipped by some to struggle this season, failed to beat a single top six side last term, taking just three points from a potential 36. Now, they are three from three. Though Arsenal cannot help how their fixtures fall, on Saturday's evidence, you wonder whether their 4-1 victory at the bet365 Stadium back in May would have come so easily if their opponents had still needed to fight for their survival.

The most frustrating aspect of it all for Arsenal supporters though will be that clear weaknesses have not been addressed. Wenger blamed “stupid mistakes centrally” for the defeat but perhaps the biggest mistake was not to strengthen centrally in the months since May's FA Cup triumph. Instead of reinforcements in the middle of the park, namely in both defence and midfield, a left-back and a striker arrived. Both Sead Kolasinac and Lacazette promise much, but neither will solve the problems Arsenal fans have put up with for several years now.

They still lack a reliable presence in midfield without the indefinitely-sidelined Santi Cazorla. Granit Xhaka is particularly erratic and it was the Swiss midfielder’s sloppiness in possession that led directly to Jesé’s pivotal strike. Still, the goal could have been prevented with greater organisation but Wenger’s three-man defence, two-thirds of which was made up by left-backs, were dragged from pillar to post. The system was first used by Wenger at the tail end of the last campaign and could well now be ditched for another, which in turn will be used until the same underlying weaknesses render it a failure too.

With the same squad of players, save those two additions, and the same set of problems as ever, it is hard to see how Wenger improves on last year's fifth-place finish, but it is too early to make any definitive calls. It remains to be seen whether Antonio Conte can avoid a 'Mourinho season', whether Liverpool's defensive issues will hurt them too much, whether Tottenham Hotspur can cope without White Hart Lane, whether Manchester United's bright start is significant or whether Manchester City are as strong as most people think.

Only one of those clubs needs to falter and Arsenal will still be the best placed to take advantage. At this point, however, the likeliest outcome is that those five are the top five and all prove to be stronger than Wenger’s side. Each of them has either improved or can reasonably claim that upgrades were not necessary. Arsenal’s problems have been known for some time and yet they remain unresolved. That, simply, is why there was relatively little title talk. The top six still dominate, but Arsenal look more and more like the sixth-best.

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