February 7, 2014
"We are today where we are, and that cannot be a coincidence. You cannot be lucky over 24 games, that is for sure." -Arsène Wenger
Over the next two weeks, Arsenal play a series of games that will serve as their touchest test to date and could ultimately define our season. I only say "could" because the bulk of these games are at home. Come March, we have another difficult stretch that is mainly on the road.
Welcome to Thunderdome.
Our final preparation for this first run of games came against Crystal Palace on Sunday. The Eagles are a really interesting case study in the effect of coaching on teams. In the early season, they struggled mightily and looked to be candidates for relegation. But since the arrival of our dear old friend Tony Pulis, they have turned things around quite a bit and have provided stiff competition for everyone they have faced.
Arsenal were no exception. Granted, Palace did not look like a team that was looking to score, and they had few opportunities, but they kept Arsenal frustrated throughout the first half. And even after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain broke the deadlock just after the break, it too another 25 minutes to build the two-goal buffer that sealed the three points.
It was a brilliant display by the Ox, who had still been looking to get in the groove after missing most of the season. When asked about his performance, Arsène Wenger said, "I always believed in him, let's not forget that I pushed him centrally because I've seen in him the quality in training that he can become a player in there. He has shown that I was not completely wrong with that."
The boss also touched on one of the biggest differences between this season and other recent campaigns: consistency at the back. "Our defensive stability doesn't create unrest in the team and allows us to continue the way we want to play," he said.
Just how consistent have Arsenal been defensively? The 2-0 win over Palace marked our 18th clean sheet of the season. And as Laurent Koscileny said afterwards, "It's the team who will be the most consistent in the league [that will win it]."
And according to Wojciech Szczesny Arsenal's defensive consistency comes down to … erm … consistency in the defense. "We've been together for much longer and we understand each other's game now," he said. "Over the last couple of seasons we had less luck with injuries - I never played with the same back four for more than two or three games [in a row].Now we play with the same back four, sometimes we rotate the full-backs but in general we stay with the same defence."
The win over Palace also propelled Arsenal back to the top of the Premier League table – and Chelsea's win over Manchester City kept the two point cushion. The manager's reaction to that game was that this season's title race always has been and will remain, unpredictable.
And not hammer the point home, but Wenger noted that, "[The title race] will be down to consistency."
And tomorrow is where that consistency will be extra-special important. Liverpool feature one of the most dangerous goal-scoring tandems in the league in Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. And Wenger knows that while it’s incredibly difficult to stop players like that from scoring, you can limit their opportunities by limiting service to them.
Arsenal were able to that earlier in the season – but Liverpool have a decidedly different look to them now. In that game, they played a three-man defense, and now are more of a 4-3-3. A quick glance at their results since the start of the new year (five wins, two draws, zero losses) would suggest that new strategy is paying dividends.
The good news for Arsenal is that there do not seem to be any further injuries since the Palace game. There were questions over Mikel Arteta, but the boss said he's fine. The best news is that Jack Wilshere could be available to add another element to the offense – and another option for rotation.
And we'll need that. Over the next two weeks, Arsenal play five times: away to Liverpool followed by a four game home stand against Man Utd, Liverpool, Bayern and Sunderland.
Wenger is confident Arsenal will be able to deal with the schedule. But he suggested that the only really important game on the fixture list is the next one. "It is very difficult to have a global plan because as we know we are in a job that is unpredictable. The best way to make it predictable is to win the next game."
It's an early Saturday kickoff – 7:45 a.m. ET and a brutal 4:45 a.m. start on the West Coast. But is there a better way to show off your status as a super fan by hitting the pub with your fellow Gooners? Bear in mind that due to Olympics coverage, the game can found on the USA Network in the USA and Sportsnet 360 in Canada.
So set your alarms – and your coffee maker – this is a game you do not want to miss!
Come on you Gunners!Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 7 Feb 2014