When the players traipse through the doors at London Colney this morning, the management will no doubt be looking for signs of wear and tear following Saturday’s win at Sunderland. With the clash against Bayern Munich looming, the side which takes to the field against Blackburn Rovers in this weekend’s FA Cup tie would no doubt have been much-changed anyway. Options are beginning to look a little limited in some positions if this morning’s press is anything to go by.
The squad is not looking thin overall, just a little stretched and you wonder how many players Wenger will be able to rest given that the Cup is realistically, Arsenal’s best chance of silverware this season. Winning the Champions League is not beyond them at all but it is a lot tougher than the domestic trophy. Viewing the remainder of the Fifth Round draw, a major surprise will occur if one of the current top six do not win the trophy. The only team missing is Tottenham; that underlines how much power is concentrated in the hands of the top of the Premier League table. The luck of the draw will definitely be with on the side of one of those teams if they avoid any others in the Quarter Finals. Did I say it was going to be easier to win this than the Champions League?
Defensive options are most concerning. Andre Santos‘ stay at the club appears to be in its final stages, the Brazilian arriving in his homeland to tie-up the loose ends of a loan deal to Gremio. How quickly things have changed for him, hailed last season as the future of the left-side of Arsenal’s defence to being marginally more welcome on the teamsheet than Sebastian Squillaci. Even so, we should not forget the contribution of his goal at The Hawthorns on the final day of the season as Arsenal contrived to make securing third a lot harder than it should have been. This is not a problem, Nacho Monreal has settled quicker than the overnight snow which has covered the locale with a thin white veneer.
His introduction probably confirmed the Spaniard’s belief that English football is filled with club-wielding neanderthals, barely capable of stringing two words together into a sentence let alone the same number of passes. Blackburn are not likely to change any of those prejudices. Doubts about Laurent Koscielny’s fitness will no doubt remain until later this week when the position is clarified but even if the Frenchman is fit, there must a strong temptation for Wenger to give Ignasi Miquel a runout as centre back in the cup-tie, Monreal’s appearances for Malaga ensuring he cannot feature against Bayern.
Thomas Vermaelen will most likely not feature and you wonder if part of the Belgian’s problems with his form can be attributed to the ankle injury he is carrying. Such an injury will not necessarily be at the forefront of his mind but any twinges felt during the game will jog his memory. I wonder how long he would be out for with surgery; if it is a less than a month, is it better to take the risk and have it done now or do the club wait until the Summer? Until Koscielny’s misfortune on international duty, that option must have been a possibility; now with the alternatives Sagna and Miquel, any managerial reticence to follow this path is understandable.
An area which must surely be of some far less concern is the team’s belief. I know there were awful first half performances in matches this year, evidenced by the stat which has done the rounds for a while that puts the team top of the table on second half scores, in the bottom half of the table in the opening forty-five minutes. With back-to-back performances that required the side to overcome the more physical aspect of the English game and take a fair bit of punishment in the process, coming away with six points and no goals conceded must instill something in them.
Not only that, the manner of achieving those wins was important. Walcott was battered from pillar to post by Stoke, responded by picking himself up and determined to make them pay, eventually drawing the foul which led to Podolski’s goal. Cazorla came on and ran at Stoke without hesitation. Wilshere showed the spikiness to Owen’s petulance, Arteta’s studied silence and lack of response to provocation a strength of character which the side needed. Too often Arsenal sides in recent years have failed in these situations.
These attributes were needed on Wearside and shown time and again. If the players cannot draw more belief from this, I don’t know when they will be able to. It isn’t a signal that they will definitely finish in European places, just that they have the inner strength to draw on, to meet the minimum requirement for a season. They will need it in the coming months, March an infinitely harder fixture list than February. Six out of six so far; win against Villa to make that nine, progress to the last sixteen of the FA Cup and a defendable lead to take to Munich – although any lead ought to be considered defendable – will leave few complaints about that month’s work and a strong position as the season enters the final third.