Keep calm and carry on: Arsenal cannot afford another crisis of confidence in three-way battle for London supremacy

Arsene Wenger's team were below par against QPR but they must ensure it is only a temporary blip as Tottenham and Chelsea breathe down their necks in race for Champions League

It was difficult to judge this wimpish Arsenal display and not conclude that it was a return to the bad old away days.

The centre-backs were monstered by a classic British targetman, the midfield was out-manoeuvred by opponents who sniffed an opportunity and seized it, while healthy possession stats failed to amount to much.

A candid Arsene Wenger was in little mood to offer either excuses or an unconvincing public defence of his out-battled players.

“In the Premier League if you miss something on the commitment front you are beaten,” Wenger said afterwards. “That was the result. We can only congratulate QPR for their attitude and be unhappy with our own performance.”

Asked if complacency had been an issue, a furious-looking Wenger ignored the stonewalling tactic that most managers would have opted for. “It is difficult to say but why not? We played against a team who fight for survival. We missed something today. The pitch was bad but that doesn't explain our poor performance. The performance of QPR explains our poor performance.”

The manager was clearly trying to send a message to his players. After seven league wins on the bounce (aggregate scoreline: 22-7), the Frenchman wanted defeat to act as a mallet to the head for his players.

One dozy performance would have to be tolerated but returning to north London without any points should act as a wake-up call. “It is a good shock today to come back to what made our strength recently,” observed the Frenchman.

It would be re-writing history to say that Arsenal were anything other marvellous in March. Flair and adventure were fused with resilience and productivity. The performances were as immaculate as the pristine turf at Emirates Stadium.

It was not a boggy pitch or ill-fortune that did for Arsenal against QPR’s exceptional and exceptionally well-drilled players, who are finally beginning to benefit from the methods of Mark Hughes and his coaching staff.

Arsenal lost because QPR had the wherewithal to knock them out of their elegant stride and the attacking menace to hurt them.

One hyperbolic pundit (Robbie Savage) who knows him well ventured it was the greatest result of Hughes’ 13-year managerial career. That is taking it too far but, as one who witnessed both this and the famous comeback victory against Liverpool 10 days previously, the dismantling of an on-song Arsenal team with a performance where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts comfortably takes precedence as the best result and display of his fifth dugout assignment.

Arsenal should regard this defeat as a blip. There is no reason for it to escalate into a crisis.

Thomas Vermaelen, at fault for both of Rangers’ splendidly executed goals, will attempt to erase it immediately from his memory bank, as will Kieran Gibbs, Tomas Rosicky and the unfortunate Aaron Ramsey, who offered a lamentable display in a left flank role for which he is completely unsuited.

Others who have been at the heart of recent renaissance barely passed muster. Theo Walcott slammed in the equaliser but he was otherwise quiet, Mikel Arteta was polished enough but never truly shone, while even Bacary Sagna and Robin van Persie had off days.

The key for Arsenal is to stay cool in what is becoming an increasingly heated battle for the final two Champions League places.

Released from the shackles of the Andre Villas-Boas regime, there is a warm glow about Chelsea again. Tottenham can even jump back above their north London neighbours if they win by three clear goals against Swansea on Sunday.

Next up for Wenger’s team is spluttering Manchester City at Emirates Stadium next Sunday. With no cup competitions to distract or tire them, the focus for Arsenal is entirely on accumulating league points.

Chelsea must also visit N5, as will Wigan Athletic and Norwich City, but Arsenal should be confident of getting something at each of Wolves, Stoke City and then West Brom on the final day of the season.

The wheels have come off twice already for Wenger’s side this season – in the early batch of Premier League fixtures that will forever be associated with an Old Trafford scoreboard spelling out an 8-2 humiliation and, again, in January when they suffered defeats against Fulham, Swansea City and United.

If it occurs for a third time, it is unlikely the players will be walking out to the Champions League anthem next season.

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