Arsenal's early season form prompted claims that Arsène Wenger's side are genuine title contenders. However, after successive home defeats to Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea, some are wondering whether it's just another false dawn. Here Dominic Fifield looks at the five key questions facing Wenger's side ahead of a busy month of fixtures which could be a defining period.
1) Should two home defeats in a week be prompting panic?
Not according to Wenger on Tuesday night, even if the perception from the outside lingered that the past few days – a comfortable victory at the Premier League's whipping boys elect, Crystal Palace, aside – have served as an unwanted reality check. Arsenal had been such a breath of fresh air since that opening day home defeat to Aston Villa, a side inspired by the big-money arrival of Mesut Özil whose creative spark has so illuminated their displays. Aaron Ramsey has been revived and outstanding, the first-choice centre-forward, Olivier Giroud, enjoying a productive second season at the club, as he has at previous employers over his career. Their first-team remains impressive and, Wenger argued, more than capable of cutting out the rather freakish errors that have started to creep in – recall Carl Jenkinson's poorly paced nodded back-pass against Chelsea – to recover poise and defeat Liverpool on Saturday. Win that and they can tackle the return leg in Dortmund, the trip to Manchester United and the visit of Southampton with relish again. "We have to respond well against Liverpool," Wenger said. "We are in a strong position in the league and have a good opportunity at home, and we have to turn this round."
2) ... but is their reality really that rosy?
The problem is that the immediate fixture list suddenly feels daunting now that Dortmund and Chelsea's second-team – albeit a lavishly assembled side which cost in excess of £250m and boasted 669 international caps combined – have exposed Arsenal on their own patch. Quality teams with a depth of resources still appear to have the edge over Wenger's charges. That should perhaps not be surprising, but it is still sobering. As was the manager's all-too familiar lamentation over the team's naivety and lack of maturity when the Germans prevailed in London last week, and his admission of concern at the team's careless concession of early goals. César Azpilicueta, Chelsea's second-choice right-back, stressed in the aftermath of Tuesday's 2-0 win across the capital that the visitors "controlled most of the game". "The feeling inside was that we were dominating Arsenal in their stadium, when they are top of the table, so it is very nice," he added, which will offer Chelsea encouragement and puncture the mood of optimism at the Emirates. Furthermore, Arsenal's encouraging start to the Premier League season has to be put in proper context. They have gleaned 22 points from their nine fixtures, the last of which was an away win at the Championship play-off winners. Take the corresponding games last season, with West Ham as play-off winners, and Wenger's team actually gained a full 27 points from the same matches. Is that progressive? There may have been improvement in the calendar year, but that reflects previous stodgy form and the kindness of the schedule to date.
3) And what of the depth of the squad?
Chelsea's win rather confirmed what most had already feared. Özil's arrival added to the first-team's quality, but it replenished an area of the squad that was already well stocked with talent: Arsenal have rarely been wanting for creative midfielders in recent seasons. Where, though, is the quality back-up to Giroud, whose name was chanted with ever more ferocity from the stands with every ineffective touch from Nicklas Bendtner as the Frenchman warmed up on the sidelines. Bendtner had not started a game at the Emirates since March 2011. He was rusty, inevitably, but did not look like a player who recognised the derby as an opportunity to be seized to reestablish his reputation. Maybe it was asking him too much to disrupt David Luiz and Gary Cahill, first choices for their country, but the home support could have expected more than the mishmash of a performance offered up. Furthermore, while David Luiz, Azpilicueta or Juan Mata would expect to excel if called upon when Chelsea visit Newcastle on Saturday, Jenkinson and Thomas Vermaelen do not look like players who can be dropped into the first team at short notice should Wenger's back-line need revamping overnight. The Belgian no longer exerts the influence or calm authority he once did, his role having been diminished. Jenkinson appears to have regressed, probably through lack of opportunity, since debuting for England almost a year ago. The midfield may be a match for most, but the rest can feel flimsy behind the first XI.
4) But they have been unfortunate with injuries, haven't they?
Wenger did offer that reminder, and he has a point. Theo Walcott may have made a difference in either of the home fixtures and, when on form, can wound elite opposition. Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the others mentioned by the manager as "players who have a big impact offensively", might be considered more as fringe players but, in that capacity, would have relished the chance to take on Chelsea in the Capital One Cup and might, potentially, have wrested back some of the initiative enjoyed by the visitors for most of that contest. Perhaps the player whose absence was felt the most, however, was Mathieu Flamini who had retired in the first half against Norwich this month and briefly offered the visitors space in which to thrive. He had missed the Dortmund defeat altogether, then been withdrawn early again at Palace, this time with a groin injury that will keep him out for a few more weeks. The loss of a defensive midfielder who cost nothing in the summer might not normally feel critical, but Flamini has quickly established himself as key: he shields, he keeps things simple, he barks orders and organises. He is, in short, a powerful influence in the middle of the park. Without him anchoring as the creative talents seek to revel, Arsenal concede space to better quality opponents. His loss as the team careers into their most challenging sequence of fixtures of this term to date was untimely.
5) So has this actually just been another false dawn?
That will be clearer in a month once Liverpool, Dortmund, United and Southampton have been confronted. The optimist in Wenger will see the forthcoming fixtures as an opportunity for his strongest side to make a statement. The danger is that, should more injuries or suspensions kick in, the back-ups could yet be exposed, as they were on Tuesday. The Merseysiders' visit on Saturday will be intriguing. Liverpool are, like Arsenal, apparently punching above their weight having benefited from a kinder opening run of games than others expecting to be challenging for domestic honours have endured. Their title pursuit would have been greeted as even unlikelier than the Londoners' back in the summer. And yet they arrive propelled by the most prolific forward partnership in the division, and optimistic on a four-match unbeaten run. They will be slippery and awkward to confront. Without Flamini, do Arsenal have someone who can snuff out the considerable threat posted by Luis Suárez? Wenger had hoped to secure the Uruguayan last summer but now must somehow deflect him, while coaxing concentration, defensive quality and attacking intent from his selection. "People go quickly to definite conclusions," he said. "After the first game against [Aston] Villa we were relegated. Today we are in a strong position in the league. It's how we rid ourselves of these mistakes without losing the belief in our qualities. That is what is at stake." It feels early to be talking of defining periods in a club's campaign, but in Arsenal's case it is less outlandish. Theirs has been a good start, nothing more. The next few weeks will determine whether they have any proper staying power.