Arsenal must buy a central midfielder for quick fix, says Neil Humphreys
Gunners must solve midfield problem or kiss title hopes goodbye
(Cuco Martina 19, Shane Long 55, 90+2, Jose Fonte 69)
In a season of unpredictable farce, only one cliche remains.
The Gunners boast the mental strength of a ticklish elf being interrogated by a gang of feathers.
On the day British bookmakers made them title favourites, Arsenal delivered their worst performance of the season.
Of course they did. That's what Arsene Wenger's men do. They flatter to deceive. Against Southampton yesterday morning (Singapore time), they didn't even flatter. They just deceived.
They had fooled their followers into believing that the North Londoners were on the march to glory, but their minds remain more brittle than Humpty Dumpty after a great Boxing Day fall.
And here's the bad news for Arsenal fans, the wretched news, the worst news ahead of tomorrow's clash against Bournemouth.
It cannot be fixed. Not now. No way.
Mental strength isn't achieved through dumbbells or drill runs. A psychology convention could not turn the fragile Gunners, who succumbed so meekly at Southampton, back into the imperious artists who decimated Manchester City just days earlier.
That's a metamorphosis beyond the most magnificent of minds.
Such tenacity comes from the most irritating of catch-22 scenarios. Win titles regularly and a team acquire self-belief in winning titles regularly.
Just look at Manchester United to see how it was done. Or examine Manchester City and Chelsea in recent seasons to see how it wasn't.
As they proved so pitifully at Southampton, when the Gunners are presented with the opportunity to top the table, they behave like a jittery child presented with a live firework.
They panic. They fizzle for a bit before exploding in the night sky and disintegrating.
All that remains are the scorch marks where Shane Long burned both Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker.
Wenger cannot tackle the long-standing psychological fragility in the coming days and weeks.
What he can do is sign a central midfielder. Right now. It's the only quick fix available to him.
Clutching the flimsiest of straws, the Frenchman unwisely opted to blame the referee for three of the four goals.
His decision was foolish not for the obvious reason that a team hammered 4-0 - and the scoreline actually flattered Arsenal - are seldom unlucky, but because he had a more legitimate get-out clause.
The Gunners are lost without Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin.
Arsenal's silk-and-steel double act made them one of the most successful midfield partnerships in the calendar year.
If their long-term absence isn't addressed and settled next month, then the title dream risks slipping into yet another nightmarish near-miss.
Highlights packages inevitably focused on Cuco Martina's priceless curler and Long's startling ability to bully Arsenal's centre backs.
But the fact that both men enjoyed possession outside of the penalty box points to Arsenal's midfield failings.
Aaron Ramsey, like teammates Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, continues to reside in that exasperating category of promising British footballers who seem to spend years trying to live up to their undoubted potential.
But Mathieu Flamini is the more immediate concern.
An honest, tireless performer, the 31-year-old finds himself saddled with the thankless task of trying to conjure career-best form after two years of infrequent football.
Southampton dominated in central midfield, particularly in the second-half when they used their two-goal cushion as a springboard to launch Long and Sadio Mane forward.
At times, their football was as pretty as Arsenal were ugly.
Mesut Oezil, a revelation against Manchester City, veered between inept and anonymous. Even the greatest magician needs a wand.
The German rarely saw the ball because Ramsey and Flamini struggled to win it.
Flamini lacks the crunching consistency of Coquelin and Ramsey's passing range still falls some way short of Cazorla's infra-red accuracy.
Wenger will find the irony infuriating.
Just as he finds himself with a striker who seeks goals rather than excuses and a fine partnership in Oezil and Walcott, he loses the men who made the attacking resurgence possible.
A disheartening sense of deja vu must be gripping the Arsenal faithful. They've been there so many times before.
What must be equally infuriating is not only the Gunners' reliable ability to throw away promising positions, but the also the eagerness of their rivals to do the same.
With Manchester United and Leicester City both failing to win, Arsenal were perfectly positioned to release a bold statement of intent. But they spoiled the exam papers.
They can retake the test against Bournemouth, but chances must be limited, even in this topsy-turvy race.
Wenger already knows that this erratic season of transition represents Arsenal's greatest opportunity. There may not be another.
And if he wins the title, he'll fix the mental problem.
To win the title, however, he must fix the midfield problem first.
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