Thanks to Big Al for standing in with yesterday’s match report. The world certainly seems a brighter place than on Friday when the Chicken Little’s were running around screeching about how Arsenal could be out of the top five by the time of kick-off tomorrow at Molineux. Fortunately the players are made of sterner stuff and produced an excellent performance against Manchester City. Combined with the putrid offerings by Tottenham and Chelsea, there is a real chance to put daylight and substantial pressure on those two by taking six points from the trip to Wolves and the visit of Wigan.
To put matters into perspective, that sequence of events followed by victory over Chelsea will leave Arsenal eleven points clear of fourth with Newcastle entertaining Stoke before Spurs visit QPR. The fixtures have been re-arranged for the final week of the season so that gap remains and probably grows more daunting in the minds of the pursuers.
But it brings its own pressure on the Arsenal players. This is a golden opportunity to all but seal third place and with that comes the weight of expectation. As much as those who were panicked by the media-led farce about being out of the top five, there is an inherent complacency that exists about a trip to Wolves and Wigan coming to The Emirates. That mindset cannot extend to the squad and nor should it. Theo Walcott admitted that complacency set in before the trip to QPR and Arsenal were duly punished.
Speaking in the aftermath of the win over City, Thomas Vermaelen placed his emphasis on organisation and concentration as the traits that will underpin a successful end to the season,
…in the Premier League, everybody can beat everybody, we can all drop points. You have to be focused, because every game will be hard. In some games we have shown a lot of quality and we can compete with everybody. But you have to be consistent in the league and sometimes that’s not been the case for us. But we will try to do that better next year. I’m confident we can do that.
Ending the season on a positive note, finishing third when ludicrous talk of relegation mirrored the season’s changes as summer drifted into autumn, lays important foundations for next season. It also offers the manager scope to negotiate with new and existing players, pointing out that his optimism for a new campaign is not unfounded.
Many factors beyond Arsenal’s control may influence outcomes adversely. The standard of officiating this weekend has highlighted how poor standards are at the moment. Or perhaps the benefit of mass broadcasting is that we know all of the officials are poor rather than it just being those who officiate at Arsenal. I took some reassurance – I hasten to add that I use that word in its loosest possible sense – that Stuart Atwell was as poor at handling Swindon Town versus Northampton Town yesterday as he has been in Premier League fixtures. Diabolical offside decisions and cast-iron penalties being missed are not the sole preserve of the upper echelons of the professional game.
You sense that the balance of experience and youth is right throughout the squad. In some cases they are contained in one player, Theo Walcott for example has made 216 Arsenal appearances (including 78 as substitute) and whilst it has not been his most consistent season – I think that was 2007-08), his productivity is better with defensive awareness continually improving. This is no doubt a result of having an experienced head such as Bacary Sagna behind him and the Frenchman’s influence cannot be underestimated.
The key is noting the importance of individuals such as Mikel Arteta but also not forgetting that bit part players such as Benayoun have key roles to play. Once again, he played well in a big match. As Vermaelen observed, the shape of the side looks good at the moment and they are defending more consistently than at any point during the season. The pre-Christmas good form stumbled at Eastlands before collapsing against Wolves at home. That point was the last until Bolton; it serves as a reminder that even the routine fixtures can be stumbling blocks.
If that does not focus minds, nothing will. On that note, I will vacate the pulpit and leave the sermon to Mr Herbert Chapman of The Arsenal.