You would think it the most contentious choice to make but the general consensus is that Amy Lawrence pretty much nailed the best XI from Arsène’s reign. The only change I would make is for Bacary Sagna ahead of Dixon; the England full back’s best years, I think, were in the Graham era. It says a lot when most arguments can be drawn on the worst XI. It was surprising how many candidates there were as a battle royal emerged for the dubious honour of inclusion as a centre back. Quite how anyone has omitted Mikael Silvestre is beyond me but it seems there is less forgiveness of Pascal Cygan, no matter how poor Sebastien Squillaci performed.
It is all a bit of fun, a distraction from the main task which is winning at Stamford Bridge. Mathieu Flamini believes in the squad and what they are daring to dream of:
“It’s a great opportunity, everyone is waiting for Arsenal to win a title and everyone is talking around the club that Arsenal haven’t won a title for a while. It’s a great opportunity for us and it’s in our hands and I can assure everyone we will do everything to go through and win it this year…I’m focused on our team. The Premier League is very competitive, it’s a very open championship and that means every single point is important.
I would love to win a title, it means so much to the players, to the manager and the fans. We believe we can do it, we will give everything to do it”
The one thing Arsenal players have always been able to do consistently well is talk the talk. When it comes to delivering, well, we know the recent history of the club to the extent where it isn’t even the family secret shoved in the closet under the stairs, it has made itself quite at home with a brandy and cigar in the lounge. Flamini’s words were not so much a rallying cry as unbridled optimism, tinged with reality given the stature of upcoming opposition.
The reality is that the defeat at Stoke means their destiny lies elsewhere. To be honest it has for a while, probably since surrendering the lead at Southampton. Three wins, a draw and two defeats since then handed Manchester City the advantage; that may yet change as their next three away games are at Old Trafford, The Emirates and Anfield. Any genuine aspirations on Arsenal’s part will only be fulfilled if they win the next two matches which is very demanding when you consider their record in top four clashes over recent seasons.
Alan Smith suggested that this may be down to a mental block, something I am not so sure about previously. Perhaps there is a hint of truth in it though with Arsenal unable to beat even a mediocre Manchester United side this season, taking just one point from six. You could point to the recent match at The Emirates and rightly suggest it was not that bad a point given the result at Anfield the preceding weekend. It is an argument which is impossible to make for the meeting earlier in the season when Arsenal visited Old Trafford eight wins in nine Premier League matches and having won in Dortmund in the midweek. Perhaps that was a mental hurdle the players could not overcome. Was it one that the manager struggled with either, haunted by previous failings on the same ground?
Smith was right when he claimed victory might “infuse them with a bit more self-belief that they can go the distance” although that is more likely to come with six points from their next two games. So much of what happens between now and May is going to rely on the players heads, about how deeply they believe in themselves and each other, about how they react to setbacks during matches. This is one area where the squad is markedly improved on previous incarnations. Too often defeat would mark the beginning of a tailspin out of contention a lot earlier in the season. The reaction to the opening day defeat, the adverse results that began with defeat in Naples, the triumphs since Stoke, these bode well for the future. If more depth is added to key areas of the squad and experienced professionals who may leave are adequately replaced, then this season may well prove to be the stepping stone that it is shaping to be. A lot of ‘ifs’ need to come together to make that happen, the biggest of which has become an annual mantra: if we invest in the playing staff.
Victory at White Hart Lane has given the week a boost. With the milestone of 1,000 competitive matches being reached at Stamford Bridge, there is a celebratory mood around the club, building upon reaching Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final. Perhaps it is the prospect of being the club which can lose the FA Cup feeds that off the pitch. Flamini spoke of the players and all involved wanting the title, of that being the reason they join clubs like Arsenal. That would be a fabulous achievement but one which I think is a step too far this season. But six points from the next two games? Well, then they might dare to believe. For starters though, they need to take three on Saturday. One game at a time…