April 26, 2013

Since mid-March, when we were on the outside looking in at the top four, I have found myself constantly looking at the fixture list attempting to figure out how many points could we grab out of a possible 30? How many would we need to secure fourth? How about third? Or, dare I ask, even second?

Each time I looked at the schedule, I would focus on what each game meant and how likely it was that we could pick up three points. In an incredibly unscientific manner, I broke each of the first five games into a category.

  • The home games we simply had to win:  Reading and Norwich. So far so good.
  • The tricky away games: Swansea and West Brom. Check and check.
  • The big test that was home against Everton: Well… one point anyway.

If those five games confirmed anything at all, it's that we could not drop any bad points in the remaining five game. Which brings us to Fulham.

Fulham is a team that has caused us all kinds of problems. We hadn’t beaten them in four tries, and they beat us 2-1 at Craven Cottage last season just as we were enjoying a run that had seen us climb into the top four. Sound familiar?

Fortunately, things went our way this time, but just barely. Fulham played more than 80 minutes with 10 men after Steve Sidwell was tossed for an ugly challenge on Mikel Arteta early in the first half. Despite that, it all came down to a Per Mertesacker close-range header in the 43rd minute.

Fulham threw everything they had at Arsenal in the final minutes, but we hung on, kept another clean sheet – four out of the last six games – and picked up three vital points. After the game, Arsène Wenger praised his team and pointed out that there is in fact something very different going on right now. "When the ball was in the box in the last five minutes we always [used to] concede a goal and now we don't," he said. "That means that the resilience is there and the team has learnt."

The team's defensive play – especially the center back pairing of Mertesacker and Larent Koscielny – is definitely gelling. Koscielny put forth a few explanations of why it has improved so much. The first is that he insists that he simply plays better when he is involved in a defensive duel with a striker. “It's better for my game because I am more confident, I can take little risks with passes and feel better and better during the game."

Whatever works for you pal - just keep it up!

Second, Koscielny said he and Mertesacker have are communicating throughout the game – and have developed a strong understanding to how the other plays. "[Mertesacker] attacks the ball and wins headers whereas I go behind, can be quick and cope with the long balls."

That leads into his third reason, that Arsenal have become a better team as the year rolled on. Koscielny pointed to Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta saying, "They work very hard and very well in midfield.  When we have the ball, they play with passes. When we lose the ball, they have the quality to stop a lot of counter-attacks. They give themselves for the squad." Ramsey, ever so humble, added, "Everyone is working for each other at the moment and I think everyone can see that."

So while the defense seems to be running like a well-oiled machine at the moment, Wenger felt that his players were a bit too cautious offensively in the second half. While that made for a very stressful 45 minutes, it was pretty understandable. They were trying to protect a lead, and as the boss put it, "I put it down to psychological reasons and to the fact that we didn't want to be stupid." No one wants an unnecessary second yellow or red card late in a game that should be an easy win.

But of course, it happened anyway. We lost Olivier Giroud for three of our final four games when he was shown straight red for going over the ball on a challenge. Giroud insisted – and the manager agreed – that it was a complete accident as he lost his footing at the last second. Arsenal appealed the ruling which is an act that really does show how much a team believes a red card was unjustified. If the FA deems an appeal to be frivolous, they could tack on another game. In the end, the suspension was upheld, but just the three games.

Of course, that means our starting striker misses the most difficult of remaining games: home to Manchester United on Sunday. It doesn’t take the resident historian to tell you that this is always one of the biggest games of the year. But there is definitely some extra intrigue in this iteration.

  • It's Robin van Persie's first game back at Emirates Stadium.
  • Man Utd won the title last weekend, and will be getting a 'guard of honour.'
  • Combining No. 1 and No. 2…

Then there is the overall race for second/third/fourth. Man City, Chelsea and Spurs all have some very winnable games this weekend so there is great potential for us to slip back out of the top four.

The funny thing with this United team is that they aren't dominating everyone. They really are just a little bit better than everyone else – and remarkably deep. Alex Ferguson has rotated his squad throughout the season and not much ever changed – they just kept winning to the point where they have a 21-point lead over us. Yet they have done it without any big overwhelming statistical advantages on defense. It comes down to grabbing that key goal or two and limiting their mistakes. And annoyingly, 24 goals from Van Persie.

For us, the early team news suggests that our only absentees will be the injured Lukasz Fabianski and of course Giroud. We fortunately have a number of realistic options to fill in at center forward, and it will just come down to those players to step up and show what they can do.

As Arsène said at his pre-match press conference, "It's a good opportunity to show for us that we have moved forward in this league since we played them last time at Old Trafford, which I think we have. It's a good opportunity to show that."

It is indeed. Come on you Gunners!

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Kevin Mooney 26 Apr 2013