Even by Arsene Wenger's curious definition of silverware, Arsenal's quest for a trophy is becoming more perilous by the day.
As the Gunners continue their challenge for a top-four finish—in effect a trophy, according to an infamous comment last fall by Wenger (via The Independent)—this weekend presents a stiff, and possibly revealing, challenge. In fact, if Sunday's trip to Chelsea is not a must-win for Arsenal, it's at least a must-play-well.
With 17 matches left in the Premier League season, Arsenal currently sit sixth in the table with 34 points. The Gunners trail fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur by six points and fifth-placed Everton by three, but hold a game in hand on both.
Clearly, then, there's time for Arsenal to make up ground. Wenger's team surged to third down the stretch last season behind a seven-match winning run, and even with matches against Manchester United, Everton and Spurs remaining, a similar run is possible this term.
What's less clear is whether the players have the self-belief to do so. "At the moment they have forgotten how good they are," Wenger said of his players in November (per BBC Sport).
Much has happened in the two months since, both good and bad, from the maddening 3-3 home draw with Fulham to the depressing Capital One Cup penalty shootout against Bradford to the exhilarating wins over Spurs and Newcastle. But one—maybe the only?—feature about Arsenal that has remained consistent throughout has been the team's inconsistency.
To cite a recent example, the win over Newcastle capped a four-match winning run in the league. But the Gunners bookended that stretch with disappointing performances against Swansea City and Manchester City (both matches ended in 2-0 home defeats).
In fairness, the Man City match might have turned out differently had Laurent Koscielny not rugby tackled Edin Dzeko in the penalty box early in the first half. But the Gunners' inconsistency shines through in the table and elsewhere.
Wenger's team has not performed particularly well either at home or away. Arsenal have won only half of their 10 home matches and just over a third on their travels. To put it in other terms, consider these tweets from @ArsenalReport:
#Arsenal's 2012-2013 so far: 31 games played, 45% win ratio, 26% loss ratio, 2.12 goals scored p/g, 1.32 goals conceded per game.— Arsenal Report (@ArsenalReport) January 14, 2013
#Arsenal after 31 games last season: 58% win ratio, 25.8% loss ratio, 1.67 goals scored per game, 1.19 goals conceded per game— Arsenal Report (@ArsenalReport) January 14, 2013
These numbers show us that, compared to last season, Arsenal have won fewer matches this season while scoring and conceding more goals. The fact that Arsenal have scored more this season is somewhat surprising, considering the sale of Robin van Persie to Manchester United.
But for those who have watched Arsenal this season, the defensive record won't be the least bit unexpected.
Though Arsenal have kept a respectable number of clean sheets in the league this season (seven so far), they've allowed two or more goals more often (eight times). And even when Arsenal score in bunches, they tend to concede multiple times as well (consider the league matches against Tottenham, Reading and Newcastle, and the league cup match against Reading).
Such inconsistency must be seen as one of the reasons Arsenal have scored more often this season while winning a lower percentage of their matches. It also hints that a Champions League-clinching, seven-match winning streak like last season's is unlikely down the stretch this time.
This weekend, the opponent is Chelsea, one of the five clubs ahead of Arsenal in the table. Under Rafa Benitez, the Blues have had their own struggles with consistency, ripping Aston Villa and Stoke but losing at home to QPR and away to West Ham.
The Blues beat Arsenal 2-1 at the Emirates in September, but that was a manager and seemingly ages ago. John Terry's return from injury, Demba Ba's addition to the strikeforce and the continued brilliance of Juan Mata make Chelsea a formidable opponent—but by no means an unbeatable one.
Another defeat would not be fatal to Arsenal's hopes of a fourth-place finish this season, not with so many fixtures remaining in the run-in. But considering the Gunners' consistent inconsistency, it would make a sustained run feel that much more unlikely.