The final weekend of the Premier League season is upon us, the drama stretched for another 36 hours to suit the Sunday television schedule. Confidence going into the match is probably at its highest. A decent spell of results, if not always performances, has bred optimism in the fans. It has been an almost reverse to what you would have expected; nervousness before Wigan, bullishness now. It is curious that the last game of the season was viewed more positively than the last home game.
Twice – 1993/94 and 1999/2000 – Arsenal have played at St James Park on the last day of the season, both have ended in defeat, 0 – 2 and 2 – 4 respectively. Neither game had anything riding on them. Arsenal could not finish any higher than 4th or 2nd in either case, nor could they finish any lower. History in this case, is bunk.
It has been a rare occurrence that the final day result has actually meant anything. On the quartet of occasions in his reign when results have mattered, Arsène has been able to motivate the team to produce the right outcome; a win. Confidence can be borne of that experience, as can complacency but this time, it feels a little different. Defeat on Tyneside – when it matters – would have a negative impact on the players going into next season. Having worked hard to be masters of their own destiny, it would be a fairly bruising blow to make a pig’s ear of it and put themselves into the Europa League next year. That is key for tomorrow, their own vested interest. It is more than just finishing as high as you can; each utterance about European football is always in the context of the Champions League, as Arsène himself noted,
What is at stake is a desire to stay at the top. To play top-level European football. There is a difference between the Champions League and Europa League. The Champions League features the best teams. That’s what we want to do. The financial consequences are big but that is not the most important thing for me.
If they fail to qualify for the Champions League, you can bet that the Arsenal players will be looking forward to the challenge of the Europa League and of what difficult sides, what good teams, lie in wait.
Wenger believes the players are in the right frame of mind to produce the win, you would not expect anything less in that sense. Theo Walcott suggested earlier this week that there was an iron fist inside the velvet glove during the half-time break against Wigan. Whatever the rocket delivered, it had the desired effect. Once they had settled into their rhythm, the visitors could not cope with Arsenal’s attack. That response was one of the better performances in a while. At this stage of the season, arguably the performance is nowhere near as important as the result.
For years, a common complaint has been that Arsenal could not grind out results, play badly and win. The minute that they do, the performance suddenly becomes more important. Of course performances matter to some degree. To turn up every week and be shambolic is not likely to produce any sort of consistency in results over weeks or months. It is often overlooked that the current Premier League run is one defeat in fifteen games. Not every performance can obliterated opponents, in the same way that not every result was scraped out; the balance was somewhere in the middle.
The metaphorical handbrake has been applied on several occasions, particularly away from home. It has seemed as if there was a strong desire not to lose, not to concede, has been the overriding philosophy on entering the pitch. Take the sting out of your opponents by not conceding early. Eleven goals in fifteen games is impressive enough but does not shout about the seven clean sheets. When you don’t concede, winning is made a bit easier. The attack does suffer but by comparison, not that much. Last season saw 74 Premier League goals scored, with one game to go, 71 this time around. Goals are shared amongst the team more readily, the over-reliance on one player eschewed. Of course, the season is not linear, individual results can skew goal difference in either direction. Like all headline statistics, they reflect glory and mask problems all in one go.
What they have done is begin to create a feeling of, invincibility is too strong a word, but certainly of resilience, to use Arsène’s favoured descriptor.
Winning tomorrow is all that matters, anything else relies on Tottenham capitulating as in previous seasons. I do not hold out any hope of that, di Canio’s fighting words are as empty as Pardew’s flippancy. Sunderland will go to White Hart Lane hoping to win but concede a goal? They will collapse in the same way that teams have done so to Arsenal on previous occasions. No reliance can be placed upon the failings of others. It will be their own work by which Arsenal stand or fall.