Arsenal’s win over West Bromwich Albion on Saturday afternoon was far uglier than we’ve become accustomed to over the years, but remains three invaluable points nonetheless.
It was a win that saw them leapfrog Chelsea and remain emphatically on North London rivals, Tottenham’s tail, cutting the gap between the sides to a mere point in the three horse race for two Champions League spots; a race far more intriguing than the Grand National we witnessed this weekend as far as I’m concerned. The manner of the victory is not particularly important when, particularly at the so-called business end of the season, results are the order of the day, rather than aesthetically-pleasing passing moves.
Even though last weekend’s demolition of Reading was easy on the eye, the suggestion that the Gunners are still ‘the great entertainers’ is something of a myth; a cliché well past its sell-by date. All subjective of course, but you can count on one hand the number of times Arsenal have truly blown teams away this season.
Despite plenty of flaws this season, there are positives to be taken and in a bizarre, roundabout sort of way, progress has been made, at least since the turn of the year. One could, perhaps surprisingly, make a case for Arsene Wenger’s side being more ruthless than they have been in a while. Holding out against a very decent West Brom outfit with ten men is an accomplishment deserving of credit, and one that demonstrated plenty of belief, character, mental strength or whatever nauseatingly overused phrase takes your fancy. It was similar to the win at Sunderland earlier in the season when Carl Jenkinson was dismissed and Arsenal turned in a very effective backs-to-the-wall display for the last 20 minutes or so.
There have been some shocking mistakes amongst the Gunners’ back four at times this season, but generally speaking their defensive record has been respectable, and only Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs have conceded fewer throughout the campaign. The current back five of Lukasz Fabianski, Bacary Sagna, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal looks as secure as Arsenal have had for a long time and should be relied upon for the remainder of the season. Of course the German is suspended for next week’s game with Norwich, but Thomas Vermaelen is a more than suitable replacement, and across the back line there is also Kieran Gibbs to come back in, whilst the aforementioned Jenkinson has come on leaps and bounds and is turning up the heat on Sagna for the first-choice right-back berth.
Letting leads slip through late collapses borne from lapses in concentration became all too familiar in recent seasons, but these have been few and far between in the 2012/13 campaign as Arsenal have only dropped points from a winning position twice all year; at home to Fulham and away to Everton (both of which ended in a draw). This is surely evidence of the mental fragility that has haunted the team so often in the past finally being banished – to an extent at least. After three consecutive clean sheets at the start of the season, many attributed success to ‘the Steve Bould effect’ and whilst he’s not solely responsible, it’s difficult to accept that this more focused, resolute Gunners defence developing following his appointment is purely coincidental.
Their record in the second half of games is tantamount to that of a title-winning team. Arsenal’s biggest problem seems to be getting started. Far too often games have been over by half-time, and despite valiant second half efforts, the Arsenal players frequently leave themselves with far too much to do - games against Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City being the cases in point here.
In the last two matches, however, the Gunners have held a first half lead, thus demonstrating some sort of improvement in their game, and the momentum that has been carrying them through since their ‘glorious failure’ in Munich last month. Players like Gervinho, clearly not as useless as many would have you believe, thrive off confidence and this run of form experienced by him personally, and the team itself, can only bode well for the run-in.
It’s often said that winning ugly, and grinding out results in an unfashionable manner is the hallmark of champions. It’s well documented that Arsenal don’t have a trophy to strive for, but a top four place and Champions League participation next season is up for grabs and still vitally important. The jury still remains out on the manager, but, with his players exhibiting this new-found attitude, if Wenger can pull it off with undoubtedly the weakest team in my lifetime, it has to go down as a fine achievement.