Alexis Snchez the substitute symbolises Arsenals decade of sorry stagnation | Jonathan Wilson

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The Chilean, dropped for the crunch fixture against Liverpool, threatens to be the latest in long line of false dawns under Arsne Wenger

The same again, but this time with more angst. Arsenal lost again away from home to a top-six side and again looked flat and brittle. The difference this season is that there are six sides with genuine hopes of taking the four Champions League qualification berths and, worse, that the future of Arsenals two most expensive signings, the players on whose presence fans have built their dreams of progress, looks increasingly uncertain.

How big a loss Mesut zil would be is debatable, so much so that it is not immediately clear which other European club who could afford him would want him, but Alexis Snchez is another matter. Each when signed seem to hint at a new economic reality when Arsenal, the bulk of the debt on the stadium paid off, could compete in the transfer market. Neither started on Saturday. zils absence with flu had been anticipated; Snchezs relegation to the bench had not. There was no fitness reason for the Chilean being left out of the starting lineup: he was dropped. Given Arsenals next game is the surely fruitless attempt to overhaul a 5-1 first-leg deficit against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, it cannot be claimed that he was rested.

The issue presumably was tactical, that Arsne Wenger believed he was better playing direct, over the Liverpool press, but even then it seems a little strange that Snchez could not have been accommodated wide, or even in a free central role given zils absence. He came on at half-time in a left-sided role, but by then, despite laying on Danny Welbecks goal, it was too late.

There is a whole political world beyond that. Snchez, notoriously, is desperate to play every minute of every game. At the very least his omission suggests that there is no longer a perceived need to keep him happy, but it may be even more than that, an indication that Wenger has run out of patience with Snchezs attitude, a profound will to win that perhaps now manifests too often as frustration with his team-mates many of whom, it is privately acknowledged at the club, do not take well to criticism. That suggests Snchezs contract negotiations are not progressing smoothly: his present deal expires in June 2018 and he has been linked with a 25m move to Juventus at the end of the season.

It did not take long for considerations about the shape of the front of the team to seem pointlessly academic. Nine minutes in a simple long ball shattered Arsenals shape leaving an unmarked Sadio Man to cross for an unmarked Roberto Firmino. Liverpool, without hitting anything like the heights of the autumn, were sharper, slicker and more aggressive, again and again scything through Arsenals mulch of a midfield, isolating defenders almost at will.

Remember Arsenals 2-0 win away to Manchester City, which seemed to herald a new dawn? Francis Coquelin, to everyones surprise, had returned from a loan spell at Charlton Athletic looking like the ideal partner at the back of midfield for Santi Cazorla. Wenger, it seemed, had learned a new trick, or at least remastered an old one, and could amend his habitual approach to have his team sit deep and attack on the break. That was more than two years ago, since when Arsenal have won no further league games away against other members of the top six.

The casting of Coquelin as the midfield panacea always seemed a little strange and when Cazorla is not there, as he was not for a large chunk of last season and most of this one, his limitations are exposed. The statistic is not entirely fair given how often he is left out for games against weaker opponents but it is nonetheless telling that in the 24 games he had played this season before Saturday, Arsenals win percentage was 42%; when he is not there, its 100%.

It is not just Coquelin of course but he seems symptomatic of a more general malaise. Arsenal, since Gilberto Silva left in 2008, have been short of a high-class holding midfielder. Granit Xhaka may have cost 34m but he does not play like it. Coquelin should have been a useful option who might have learned alongside a more established player but he has become an excuse not to sign and, like so many Arsenal prospects, has stagnated to the point it comes as something of a shock to be reminded he is 25.

Arsenal have a squad full of lost boys, promising young stars who never quite grew up and operate in a Neverland of unfulfilled potential.

Even the story that it is the same old story is becoming old hat. It is the same problems, the same non-solutions over and over again. If Snchez, that emblem of a new economic surge, leaves, it will feel as though Arsenal have not moved forward in a decade.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2017/mar/04/alexis-sanchez-arsenal-liverpool