Alan Hansen: Looming showdowns with real top guns to expose Arsenal's flaws
ARSENAL may be looking down on Chelsea and Manchester City from the top of the Premier League this morning, but they will not end the season as champions.
Despite their hugely impressive reaction since losing to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, which has enabled them to move clear at the top of the table, I still believe that the leaderless Gunners will end the season in fourth place.
Last season's top three sides – Manchester United, City and Chelsea – will be there again, but not necessarily in that order, leaving Arsenal to claim fourth.
They clearly have an embarrassment of riches in the middle of the pitch and genuinely multi-talented players in Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, but their critical flaw is that they are just not good enough when they do not have the ball.
And with Arsenal now entering a run of fixtures, in which they face Liverpool and United in the league, followed by games against City and Chelsea in December, the weaknesses that opponents have not exploited so far will come under much greater scrutiny.
Mikel Arteta's dismissal against Crystal Palace on Saturday highlights the issues that Arsenal have yet to address and which the top teams will test.
Arteta was sent off for bringing down Marouane Chamakh inside the Arsenal half, just seconds after Arsene Wenger's team had been in the Palace penalty area attacking a corner.
When you allow an opponent to break so quickly from a defensive position, it betrays a lapse in organisation and emphasises frailties when you do not have the ball. Palace were unable to take advantage, but United, City and Chelsea will expect to punish Arsenal if they make similar mistakes against them.
The signs of the problems that are likely to arise against the big teams have been evident in recent weeks during Arsenal's games against West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City.
Arsenal could have lost at West Brom before ending up with a draw and, although they ultimately claimed a comfortable win against Norwich, Chris Hughton's team were right in the game when trailing 2-1 and could have taken advantage of the possession they had.
The better teams will hurt Arsenal if those games develop in the same way. They will target Arsenal's weakness without the ball and the question marks over their central defenders and goalkeeper. Mathieu Flamini has done a tremendous job since returning to the club this summer. He is exactly what Arsenal needed in midfield, but he will not make the crucial difference when it matters.
You have to give Wenger and Arsenal credit for their position now, though. It has been a remarkable success story considering the manner of their defeat against Villa on the opening day.
Back then, Wenger and Arsenal looked in real trouble. The whole world appeared to be against them. There were doubts over their top-four credentials and even their staunchest supporters were turning on the club.
Wenger steadied the ship, though and handled the situation magnificently. He could argue that he has been proven right.
But despite the signing of Ozil, who has been a great success, I still do not see a leader on the pitch when I look at Arsenal. They do not have a Roy Keane, Graeme Souness or Patrick Vieira – somebody who can bring it all together when it goes wrong, but they will need one when the bad run comes along.
My fear for Arsenal is that when their bad patch arrives, they will take an awful lot longer to emerge from it than teams such as Chelsea or City, who have already bounced back from slumps this season.
When it goes wrong for Arsenal, it will be really bad, which is why I do not see them challenging for the title. And for all those saying that this could be the most open Premier League in years, I just cannot see it.
Chelsea and City are where they want to be and United, at some point, will find momentum and results.
The big teams tend to do what they have to do in the early part of the season in the knowledge that they will come strong when the trophies are handed out.
If you run out of gas in March, April or May, you will be mentally and physically shot and miss out on everything. United have mastered the art of pacing themselves. Liverpool did it for 20 years and Chelsea and City both know what it takes. (© Daily Telegraph, London)