I think I’m going to give up trying to predict anything this season. The Premier League, as proved by most British clubs failing in Europe, isn’t quite at the level it was in terms of quality, but the excitement, tension and unpredictable results produced have more than made up for it. It isn’t just in one-off games either. I’d never have predicted that Arsenal would be in the top three at any point in this campaign considering our start to the season, and our start to 2012.
Now we’re actually there, we can’t assume that the job is done. As much as Spurs’ demise is hilarious, they’re still only a point behind us and have some winnable fixtures left. However confidence and momentum can be powerful things in sport. To make a change to recent seasons, we’re heading into the run-in with some confidence and momentum flowing through the team, while others around us continue to fail. Given the previous fragility of Arsenal, I can’t bring myself to be overly confident that we’ll hold onto third, but now it’s hard not to be positive about the way we’re playing.
The Everton game was slightly different to our recent wins, mainly because we didn’t have to go behind to click into gear, and because we allowed Wojciech Szczesny to have a quiet match. After Spurs lost at Goodison Park, I was really concerned that the hosts would be pumped up for the match and that we’d suffer up north again. Instead, we dominated the match in the early stages and looked capable of cutting Everton open every time we attacked.
The team are beginning to develop an encouraging aura of not looking scared to dominate matches by playing our passing style, whilst knowing that they can be strong enough defensively. Everton didn’t pressure Arsenal as much as I expected initially, but that was partly because they couldn’t get near our players because of clever movements and quick passing. We should have scored more in the opening 20 minutes considering the chances we created, however we did at least come out of that period of sustained pressure with a goal.
It can make a huge difference to the team to have a centre back who can regularly contribute goals, especially from corners. As much as we missed Thomas Vermaelen’s defending when he was injured last season and this season, and we really did miss it, his crafty knack of scoring goals wasn’t replaced in the team. In the last two games, the Belgian has now scored two winning goals.
When he scored on his Premier League debut at Goodison Park in 2009, I was struck by his ability in the air considering his relative height disadvantage as a centre back. That was vital again as he out-jumped three players to score on Wednesday. Having him back in the middle has been a big part of our recent recovery.
The whole team have improved defensively. Now the squad have been together long enough to have learnt each other’s games, players can fill gaps when they appear and they work as a team in closing down the opposition high up the pitch. It starts with Robin van Persie, and goes right through the midfield back to the defence. The back four do deserve special credit for the clean sheet on Wednesday.
Laurent Koscielny’s impressive season continued as he bossed things at the back alongside Vermaelen. Unlike some others, I’ve liked Per Mertesacker this season, but there is no doubt that when fit, Koscielny and Vermaelen are our strongest pairing at the back. The Frenchman’s reading of the game is now superb, his tackling is strong and he has the confidence to bring the ball out of defence to help get the team moving forward.
As for the full backs, their recovery has improved the balance of our team immeasurably. Given he said that it would be stupid to lose points because of not having full-backs, I’m still unhappy that Arsene Wenger didn’t address the problem when they were all injured in January, because we are now seeing the benefits of having proper full backs in the team. In fairness to Wenger though, it would have been difficult to have signed a full back on a short term basis that could have come close to the ability of Bacary Sagna. On the other side, Kieran Gibbs is arguably playing the best football of his Arsenal career at the moment. He might not be doing anything extravagant, however he hasn’t had a bad game since his return from injury.
I was surprised that Aaron Ramsey started the match ahead of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, particularly as Ramsey seemed to operate from the left hand side. If there was a good game to try this in, facing Everton was probably it as Tony Hibbert isn’t known for being a marauding right-back that wingers need to constantly watch and track back with. This gave Ramsey a bit more freedom, and up until the moments he had to finish chances, he had a good game. I don’t think it would work as a tactic in bigger games, but it in away games that could be difficult, it’s a good option to have. In the long run, Ramsey will have to take his chances when in the team to displace Rosicky or Arteta in the starting line-up as both have been solid and effective in the last few weeks.
We should have killed the match off in the first half, but we didn’t convert chances and invited pressure onto ourselves by over-playing from the back. Song was lucky that Drenthe was wrongly flagged offside after he gave it away. The longer the second half went on, we seemed to drop deeper and were essentially asking Everton to attack. Usually, when Arsenal try and do that sort of thing, it fails miserably. However Koscielny and Vermaelen weren’t giving the Everton strikers a sniff of goal. I still wouldn’t advocate this Arsenal team sitting deeper when holding onto a tight lead, but we’re definitely better equipped to do so if needed.
The match wasn’t as dramatic as some of our recent wins, but it was just as tense and the win was arguably more important. Going forward, we created some good chances and just about did enough. Defensively, we were excellent.
Aston Villa come to the Emirates on Saturday, and I’m worried that I now expect us to win the match. Given how this season has lowered my expectations of Arsenal, I immediately fear that we’ll lose a so-called ‘easy’ game whenever we get on a good run of form and start climbing the table. Aston Villa are struggling this season, and should be beaten. Chelsea face Tottenham in the early kick off on Saturday, so a win will immediately increase our advantage over one of, or both of, those sides. We’re still got tough matches to come, albeit at home, so we have to win matches such as Aston Villa whilst we’re on a roll.
We’re used to being the chasers, and now we’re being chased. It’s a different challenge for the players, but one that we can have every hope that they can rise to. The way we’ve got ourselves up to third has been unbelievable, however we can’t relax now we’re there. Those behind us will be more determined to catch us, and we have to match them, otherwise this epic comeback will feel worthless.