Arsenal’s loss against Tottenham was disappointing on a number of fronts. The first of this was in the manner in which the Gunners capitulated having led for most of the game. Secondly, was the way in which technically excellent players like Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey kept turning over possession cheaply. Finally, and perhaps most disappointingly was the way in which a lack of focus in defence meant that Harry Kane was left largely unattended to even when all the evidence, pre-match should surely have pointed to the fact that he was the most dangerous player in a Spurs shirt and particular attention had to be paid to him.
Within the context of its overall bearing on their season however, this loss will probably have little consequence for the Gunners’ pursuit of a top four berth. Arsenal’s chances of finishing in the Champions League places do not appear to have been significantly hampered owing to a number of factors. To begin with, despite the loss, the Gunners’ recent form, and the nature of the performance against Spurs give room for optimism. In addition, one cannot underestimate the impact the imminent return of Alexis Sánchez will have on both the confidence and the effectiveness of the team. The Chilean has shown himself to be one of the true leaders of the team, with his work ethic and drive proving an example that other players, (including the previously laid back Mesut Özil) seem to have responded to.
Despite the scepticism in the mainstream media, the Arsenal train is still firmly on course. Even in the wake of the loss to Spurs, there are still several reasons to be optimistic about Arsenal’s season. The first and the most obvious of these is the return to action of several of the unprecedented number of stars that have previously been unavailable owing to various injuries. Francis Coquelin’s form also appears to show no signs of having diminished even if the way his previous performances have been trumpeted as being almost single-handedly responsible for Arsenal’s recent mini-revival has been exaggerated in some quarters. As Martin Keown perceptively points out in this piece for the BBC.
The Gunners’ improved defensive displays have come about as much from a re-ordering of priorities in search of better offensive/defensive balance, more positional discipline especially from Ramsey, and a greater team ethos, as they have from the individual contribution of Coquelin. Expanding on the Ramsey theme, it’s clear that whilst the Welshman has greatly improved in some aspects of his play, notably in his greater appreciation of his defensive duties, he’s still struggling a bit for confidence and form. His ball distribution has lacked its usual assertiveness and this was capitalised on by an aggressive Spurs midfield, although they also benefited greatly from referee Martin Atkinson’s liberal interpretation of what constitutes fouling.
As the season begins to move inexorably into that most crucial phase that Sir Alex Ferguson famously described as “squeaky bum time”, upcoming fixtures in the next month or thereabouts present Arsenal with an excellent opportunity to firmly cement their credentials towards attaining a top four finish whilst also making progress in the two cup competitions they remain in contention for.
By some strange quirk of the fixture computer, Arsenal’s next five Premier League games require that the Gunners will not leave the capital. The fact that these fixtures are also interspersed with home ties against Middlesborough and Monaco in the FA Cup and Champions League respectively, provide an excellent platform for the Gunners to embark on a winning run that could not only see them firmly establish themselves in the running for a final top four finish but also ensure progression to the final stages of these cup competitions.
It certainly helps that Wenger’s search for a reaction from the disappointment of the North London Derby starts with a fixture against Leicester City at the Emirates. The Arsenal gaffer is likely to make a few changes with the suspicion being that new signing Gabriel will make his début for the club. Theo Walcott is also likely to return to the starting line-up with Welbeck likely to continue in his wide role and Özil given a rest.
The Foxes currently stand firmly rooted to the bottom of the table and it will require an upset of epic proportions for the Gunners to come away with anything other than three points at the Emirates tonight. Win this game, and the succeeding ties before they travel to Newcastle on the 21st of March are against Crystal Palace (A), Everton (H), QPR (A) and West Ham (H). Given the unpredictable nature of the Premier League and the fact that three of these games are London derbies, nothing should be taken for granted. However considering the Gunners’ recent form and assuming that there are fewer surprises on the injury front, it would take an extremely brave pundit to predict that Arsenal will not win the majority of those games.
Win those, and the start of April should see Wenger’s side firmly ensconced in the Champions League places. All that remains is that they keep their eyes on the ball and take full advantage of the opportunity.