April 12, 2013

Last week's buzz word was "confidence." This time around it's "commitment."

Over the first 70 minutes of Saturday's match against West Brom, Arsenal were generally in control and well on their way to a pretty comprehensive win. Tomas Rosicky was the star of the show, scoring twice and clearing an otherwise sure West Brom goal off the line early in the game.

All in all, it was not an unfamiliar site. In years past we have seen games where Arsenal were cruising. When all three points were all but certain. But then one little event occurs and everything changes. Think Newcastle in 2011 or Wigan in 2010.

So when Per Mertesacker was sent off for bringing down Shane Long in the area – and West Brom scored on the ensuing penalty – you would not have been out of line if had images of St. James' Park and the DW Stadium in the back of your mind.  

But this was not one of those games.

Despite West Brom throwing everything they had at us in the final 20 minutes, Arsenal remained resolute and committed. The defense bent but didn’t break and even though most of us supporters needed to breathe into a paper bag during the final ten minutes the final whistle blew and the three points – in Arsène Wenger's words, "three big points" – were ours.

Wenger handed out plenty of praise to the entire squad citing the "fighting spirit" they showed. He also singled out Rosicky saying, he "makes a game look simple and you feel when he has the ball that something can always happen." Mikael Arteta added that the Czech's ability to change the rhythm of a game is an invaluable asset for the squad right now.

The manager also repeated his mantra from recent weeks, “The most important thing is for us to win our games,” he said. “Then you don't need to calculate too much."

That sentiment seems to have made headway with his players. After the win Bacary Sagna said, "We don't want to look at other teams. We just want to look at our own team and finish in the top four." Rosicky added an extra thought: Arsenal must improve their home form. Not that it has been terrible, but the top three clubs all have more wins and fewer losses at home. Imagine how nice it would be to have three or four extra points right about now…

Still, Arsenal have picked up 22 out of a possible 27 points in the Premier League since the middle of January and remain one of the hottest teams in the league. Attitude and focus aside, what is behind this impressive run of form? According to Arteta, it’s improved communication on the pitch. The Spaniard believes talking on the pitch – about important things anyway – can help the team unlock its potential. And it's no secret that the top teams are always talking and organizing themselves throughout any given match.

Wenger explained it differently. He thinks it really just comes down to young players gaining experience and basic team development. "In recent seasons," he said, "we have started with young squads who have learnt first during the season, or with squads who have been disturbed because we sold players and we had to rebuild a team."

But despite the good run of form, Arsenal are still outside the top four. Several players spoke of it being a familiar place and one that actually gives them an advantage. A more conformist view would be that it's a situation that puts Arsenal under pressure. Laurent Koscielny agrees with that, but adds an optimistic twist: "A little pressure is good to make sure you give your best for the team."

Looking ahead, Arsenal have play three games in the next eight days. First up is Norwich at Emirates Stadium on Saturday. The Canaries have only one win in their last 10 games and are dangerously close to the relegation zone. But let's not get comfortable here. They beat us at Carrow Road in October and their last win came against Everton via two late goals by Kei Kamara and Grant Holt. They are especially dangerous in set-pieces with a number of players capable of grabbing a quick goal.

The big question for us is how we deal with their defense this time around. If our creative players can get some space to maneuver and if Olivier Giroud can push their center-backs around a bit, we could be in for a good day. If not, we'll walk away with 60+ percent of possession and a big headache.

The key to a good day is likely a strong start to the game. If Arsenal can score early - as they have in three of their last four games - that could open things up for more goals, and less of a chance that a late set piece could ruin our weekends. While Rosicly looks set to miss out, the offense could get a boost in the form of Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere – neither of whom played in the reverse fixture. On the defensive side, Thomas Vermaelen should get the start with Per Mertesacker suspended for the game. The manager says his captain has responded well to losing his place for the past four games, and if his cameo against West Brom is any indication, the Belgian is hungry get back on the horse.  

No one needs reminding that each and every point from here on out is vital, but I'll say it again anyway. This is the latest must-win game of the season for Arsenal. With two tough games coming up next week – Everton at home and Fulham away – we need all the momentum and confidence we can get.

Come on you Gunners!

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Kevin Mooney 12 Apr 2013