Finally as fans we have genuine reason to believe that the plague of inconsistency that permeated the squad over the past six months and has prevented us from consolidating a Champions League berth (let alone challenge for the title) is now over…
Don’t get me wrong, the battle remains an uphill one, but the recent triumphs away from home – yesterday’s deserved victory over Swansea being the latest – certainly points towards a renewed focus within the squad. Everyone realises the extent of what could happen if they fail to produce the goods from here on in – no guarantee of a starting place (or indeed a future at the club) and no Champions League football. There is simply no margin for error. We either push on from here or simply whimper like a poodle back into the WWDDL trend that has characterised our season to date. It is a depressing state of affairs that the greatest aim of Arsenal Football Club these days seems to be Champions League qualification – but the reality is exactly that. It is the one and only objective remaining – one that if we fail to achieve could adversely impact the future of our club for years to come.
The 2-0 away win at Swansea was a decent result. The Swans shaded us on the possession stakes – they are probably one of the few clubs in England capable of doing so – although little was created in the way of concrete chances. There was very little pressure exerted on Fabianski – 7 attempts on our goal, zero on target. The team as a whole should be credited for carrying out such a containment job. In contrast, our own accuracy in front of goal was quite pleasing – 60% of shots on target, a couple of crossbar rattlers from the Ox, and two fine finishes to boot. It is encouraging to see Monreal pressing forward and getting on the score sheet, and also Gervinho bagging his first league goal since September (I appreciate the African Cup of Nations got in the way mate, but where have you been all this time?). If we hope to finish in the top four (and I remain quite certain that we will) then we need our squad players such as these to be pulling their weight in every game and in every training session. It is not enough to rely on a handful of stars to drag us into the qualification zone (Wilshere and Cazorla take a bow on this).
So, what for the rest of our season? I think Wenger will stick closely to yesterday’s personnel – at least for the time being. Fabianski appears more vocal and assured than twelve months ago – his shot stopping was never the main issue for me, but the control he exhibited at set pieces against Bayern and Swansea suggests a marked improvement. Szczesny beware. On the other hand, how many times have we all heard these words muttered before? One minute our keeper is set to become a club stalwart for the next decade, the next they are out on the scrap heap. For sure the recruitment of a world class keeper regardless of how our current crop perform, must remain a top priority in the summer. It could take ten or fifteen million pounds to secure one – but if this is the price we need to pay to ensure stability for the next few years, then I am all in favour… The heart of defence continues to present a minor dilemma for Wenger. In my previous article I suggested in no uncertain terms that Vermaelen can no longer assume a starting place due to the club captaincy. I also believe however that it is a mistake to sideline the man for too long. His form has admittedly not been great, but he has much to offer the club on and off the pitch. Furthermore, he has been played out of position far too many times –an example of mismanagement on behalf of the coaching team which has no doubt damaged his confidence. He must not be discarded. Furthermore what other options do we have should the form of Koscielny or Mertesacker fall away? – Considering their individual form over the past 29 matches this is more than a distinct possibility. The picture surrounding our full backs is a much rosier one. There is a degree of healthy competition between Gibbs/Monreal and Jenkinson/Sagna – although Gibbs and Jenkinson get my nod at the moment.
Looking at the fixture list, I see the next four games as potentially vital. Home to Reading on 30th March won’t be as straight forward as if we were playing them at an earlier stage in the season. Reading are fighting for their lives and the narrow defeat to Manchester United yesterday showed this. I would though be extremely surprised (if not exasperated) if we were not to book three points at home. The away game at West Bromwich Albion on 6th April ought to be another three points, at least on paper, but the Hawthorns has not been a fruitful place for any team to travel to this season – only the two Manchester clubs have registered more home wins than have West Brom. I would take any win against them, whatever the score line or performance. Norwich at home on 13th April should be a banker. The fourth and final match in this run of games could prove a pivotal moment in our season – home to Everton on 16th April. Having comprehensively beaten Manchester City 2-0 yesterday, Everton ought to be firing on all cylinders. They have an extremely competent man at the helm in the figure of David Moyes, and as a club they will continue to knock on the door of Champions League qualification in the coming years. It’s too early to make a call on how significant this game could be as Everton still have some tough games away to Spurs and at home to a desperate QPR in the interim, but my money is on it being a huge one! Chelsea have a fixture log jam to contend with in the same period, with League games against Manchester United and Tottenham – I expect points to be dropped here which should offer us a good opportunity to slip into fourth. Tottenham are in a similar position as far as fixtures go, but ought to consolidate a European spot from this point (save for another catastrophic implosion!).
Arsenal are typically strong finishers in the League. Last season was evidence of this. When the Everton match comes around I believe we will be on the cusp of breaking into fourth place (possibly even third should results go our way). As Arsenal fans we must continue to stand by our team, and most importantly to keep the faith.
Come on you Gooners!
Joshua @ RL