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Arsenal credentials under scrutiny
It’s funny that of all the subjects Jose Mourinho could have chosen for fuel in his verbal tussle with Arsene Wenger last week, he plumped for the fixture list. According to the Chelsea manager, Arsenal’s sequence of games was unfairly weighted in their favor. In an alternative universe where the two managers were amicable, perhaps Wenger would have sent Mourinho a text over the weekend after the FA Cup draw asking if he fancied swapping diaries.
February brings a run of matches for Arsenal that looks relentless in their high intensity challenges – within an 11-day period they face Liverpool at Anfield, then Manchester United (possibly with Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata all fit to play together), Liverpool once again in the FA Cup, and just the small matter of Bayern Munich in the Champions League to top it off.
Then there is a small haitus before the next surge of daunting assignments. March looks even hairier, with a string of away games at Bayern, Tottenham and Chelsea followed by the visit of Manchester City. Let’s just say most predictions are not overwhelmingly positive. The general consensus suggests if the first apocalypse doesn’t get them, the second almost certainly will…
The last time they faced a chunk of testing fixtures in a row the results were disappointing. They lost at Napoli, then absorbed that bizarre 6-3 defeat at Manchester City, and couldn’t pierce Chelsea’s defensive shield in a 0-0 draw at the Emirates. The good news was that they recovered straightaway to embark upon another positive run. But an improvement is needed to prove that they can cope better when the heat is turned up as they have a couple of mountains to climb in the second half of this intriguing campaign.
So, is it possible that Arsenal can rise serenely above the apparent difficulties that lie ahead? What they have going for them is a general consistency that has been solid for a year now. It has propelled them to the top of the Premier League and kept them there. It has qualified them from perhaps the toughest of all the Champions League groups into the knock outs.
Unless Wenger surprises everyone by pulling an Özil-esque transfer out of his top hat, there are two essential parts of the team which simply must stay fit and in form. The defensive triangle – the foundation stone of Wojciech Szczesny behind Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny – is vital. All three players have improved, and blended their qualities to make Arsenal so much more robust. They have conceded just one goal in their last ten matches at the Emirates. This enhanced resilience is key, and if they can maintain it against the highest caliber opponents they will have a chance of coming through the February sequence which has three out of four games at home.
At the other end of the pitch, the ramifications of an injury to Olivier Giroud are pretty clear, given that all of the alternatives are accompanied by question marks. Can the attacking midfield department, the area in which Arsenal are strongest, bring more to the goalscoring party? That could end up being a defining question. In seasons when Wenger put together title-winning teams, the number of goals from midfield was striking. Marc Overmars chipped in with 16 goals in 1998. Freddie Ljungberg managed 17 in 2002. Robert Pires scored 19 in 2004.
Currently, Aaron Ramsey’s golden patch at the beginning of the season means he has 13 goals to his name – putting him equal top of Arsenal’s scoring charts with Giroud – and his return to the team after injury comes just in time for the next level of serious tests.
But the difference between this team and Wenger’s previous champions is that the current team plays with only one striker compared to the pair that teamed up before, which meant that the title winners of old could rely on at least three players (two forwards and one midfielder) reaching double figures for goals.
With today’s strategy, more is required from the players who buzz around in attacking midfield. On the goal charts at the moment, way behind Ramsey, Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Jack Wilshere have five goals each.
Arsenal have made a habit of picking up in the second half of the season in recent seasons. They have had to, with a Champions League top four finish in peril. Now they have serious prizes to aim at. For Wenger the pragmatist, the only concern about the fixture list now is to analyze how much rest and recovery time his team can have, and how he might be able to best rotate his resources. His mantra is always the same: the best way to prepare for any game is to win the previous one.
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