Arsenal's recent run of form has been fantastic, but our celebrations about claiming third place have been premature. The ‘Mind The Gap' jokes, Spurs' demise and our own winning streak have been worth celebrating and enjoying, however we can't assume that we'll finish above Tottenham and that third place is ours.
Momentum is a strong thing in football, and we've used it brilliantly to our advantage recently as we turned the momentum against Spurs through Bacary Sagna's thumping header in the North London Derby. We now have to work hard to make sure that the slip up at Loftus Road, and Tottenham's win against Swansea, isn't as big a momentum swinger as Sagna's header. Maybe it was complacency, but the team seemed to take their eyes off the ball against Queens Park Rangers and there wasn't quite the same level of work rate and incisive attacking that we displayed during our winning run.
We do need to put the defeat in some perspective though. The fact we're in a battle for third place at all is brilliant considering how dark some of days were this season, and we have to give credit to QPR. They've beaten Chelsea and Liverpool at Loftus Road, and are in a relegation scrap where others around them are picking up points. They had to raise their game, and they did.
On this blog, as someone that has always been a staunch supporter of Arsene Wenger, even I suggested earlier in the season that we could be nearing time for a change at the top of the club. In hindsight, I was too hasty in that suggestion, and I’m glad that Wenger has proved us all wrong in the way we’ve improved in the last few weeks. If the QPR game does turn out to be a one-off, then we can still keep going and hold off Spurs. If the match does send our form downhill again, we could go back to battling just to make the top four and the feel good factor will disappear again.
Some parts of the media have made a lot of the fact that Arsenal’s defensive woes reappeared at Loftus Road. Generally, our defence has improved immeasurably in the last few weeks, with Wojciech Szczesny’s services almost being redundant in some games. It was worrying to see Thomas Vermaelen make two mistakes in one match, however once again they need to be put in perspective.
The first one was an error of judgement as the Belgian wasn’t quick enough to nip in front of Taarabt and got turned too easily. Ordinarily, Vermaelen is an expert at jumping in front of an attacker, but he shouldn’t have tried to do so when Taarabt was still a safe distance away from goal, allowing him the chance to have a clear run towards Szczesny. Given where Taarabt was, one of the midfielders could have been in a deeper position to cut off the supply to him. The QPR man did well to turn Vermaelen, but he shouldn’t have been given the opportunity to do so.
The blame for the second goal has also been attributed to Vermaelen, and it’s hard to argue against that, but it was more down to luck than judgement. As he did in the San Siro, Vermaelen slipped at the crucial moment having covered across well to try and stop Jamie Mackie. Having seen that Vermaelen was down, the midfield should have busted a gut to get back and support Laurent Koscielny. As it was, the Frenchman was trying to mark Bobby Zamora so couldn’t get out to the onrushing QPR midfielders. The goal was eminently avoidable, even after Vermaelen slipped.
The Belgian’s form has been one of the reasons we’ve picked up points in the manner we have recently, but he shouldn’t be exempt from criticism. His errors and misfortune did lead to us conceding two goals on Saturday, however he wasn’t helped by those around him when in those situations. It was a surprise that help didn’t arrive as the team spirit and willingness to run and work hard for the team has helped us move up the table.
After we won at Everton with Aaron Ramsey playing on the left, I could understand why Wenger chose to do the same at Loftus Road. However I’m struggling to see how doing that could be beneficial in the long term. Ramsey is a talented footballer, but he isn’t a winger. Being able to have him play on the left is good when we’re short of players in that position, but Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were on the bench, so why not start one of them? It feels like Wenger is trying to fit Ramsey into a team that doesn’t have a space for him at the moment. That isn’t to say it won’t in the future, but the balance of the team is affected without natural width on the left that Gervinho or the Ox would provide. Having Ramsey able to play on the left is a good option, but it shouldn’t be the first choice one.
There were still positives from the game on Saturday. Theo Walcott is enjoying a good run of form in terms of performances and his goal scoring. He was unlucky to hit the post with his first effort that led to the goal before finishing smartly on the rebound. He has really stepped up his game in the second half of the season and I’m hopeful that he’ll sign a new contract in the summer as he’s showing he’s worth keeping at the club.
It’s hard to know whether the team were complacent, felt like the hard work was done, or had already counted their chickens before they hatched. When there are seven games left in the season, whatever a team’s position in the league, the players have to make the most of the last chances to win points. Often, the way the season finishes massively dictates how the next one starts. We finished last season badly, and then got worse at the start of this campaign. These seven games aren’t just about securing third place, they’re about making sure we go into next season ready to show we’re aiming higher than third. Falling asleep and relaxing at Loftus Road won’t do that.
We have the ideal chance to make a statement and show that QPR was a blip by beating Manchester City next weekend. In most teams’ context, City aren’t out of form, but in the context of their season, City are struggling. The pressure of the title race appears to be getting to them, so they might not be relishing a trip to the Emirates. Our home form, and the atmosphere at the Emirates, has been excellent, so there is a genuine chance of us getting a good result. We’ve had a wakeup call, and if the defeat makes the team go back to working hard and not taking third place for granted, we can still make something of the season by finishing in the top three.