By Richard Clarke
Arsène Wenger will invoke the spirit of ’98 to help Arsenal’s push for the Premier League crown.
A week ago the Frenchman was defending his underperforming side against accusations that their title hopes would be over if they lost at Chelsea and fell 13 points behind the leaders. However Arsenal came from behind to win at Stamford Bridge and, as Liverpool only drew, they ended the weekend a mere eight points off the pace.
It is still a sizeable gap of course but the 59-year-old has guided a fledgling Arsenal side to the title from much further back. In 1997-98, Wenger’s first full season at the Club, the manager found himself 13 points behind Manchester United at Christmas following a fractious 3-1 defeat at home to Blackburn on December 13. All seemed lost and there were even early grumbles about Wenger’s future in charge.
However, as it turned out, Arsenal would not lose again in the League until after they had beaten Everton on May 3 and become champions. They added the FA Cup a week or so later just for good measure.
That season is the blueprint for the current campaign.
“We came back in 1998,” said Wenger at Friday’s press conference. “And I am confident we have the quality to do it again.
“I believe that because the rest of the Premier League has lifted their level much more than before and, secondly, I trust my team of being capable to achieve it.
“But to do that we know we have to beat all the big teams in all our games and deliver at a more consistent level against so-called smaller teams.”
The first of those qualities seems to be in order. Arsenal’s best performances of the season have come in their biggest games – Manchester United at home and Chelsea away. However that very fact makes the overall tally of five defeats much harder to handle.
Wenger confidently predicted that the win over Manchester United on November 8 would volte-face his side’s campaign. In fact they would lose their next two games against Aston Villa and Manchester City. It has been suggested that Arsenal’s concentration is better against the major names, if that is the case the visit of Wigan on Saturday is an accident waiting to happen. That’s why Wenger is searching for consistency.
”I feel that last time, after Manchester United, we couldn’t build on the win,” he said. “That was down to the quality of the performance and also I think Aston Villa had a special game.
“Now we want to take belief out of the [Chelsea] game. You could call that game after Man United a coincidence but now the second opportunity gives us more of a responsibility to produce in every game and give us more belief.
“Instead of being 13 points behind, we are now in a stronger position. We want to build on that.
“We have dropped some points against teams who supposedly don’t have the ambition to play in the top four. But I believe every team can drop points. We have seen Liverpool do that at home against West Ham this week so it can happen to everybody.”
Wigan have not beaten a “Big Four’ side in 26 attempts however they are undefeated in their last five games, a run that includes back-to-back wins against Everton and West Brom. Still, the first-team, minus the in-form Emile Heskey, were humbled 3-0 at Emirates by Arsenal’s youngsters in the Carling Cup last month.
“Wigan are a strong side,” said Wenger. “They have Heskey and Zaki upfront, who for me are a very strong combination. They then have Valencia and Palacios who are creative players in midfield. Therefore we need a strong defensive performance.
“Part of our job now is to be more stable at the back because we have conceded too many goals. It is a team effort and we need to take care more about the defensive side of our game as a unit.”
There is a feeling that Saturday is a new start for Arsenal. Despite their marked inconsistency this season, they are still in a position to mount a serious challenge. While Wenger’s men are considered the weakest of the top four it could be argued that if the other three sides were that much stronger the gap would be almost insurmountable by now.
“We had a very good weekend last week,” said Wenger. “That is why we are positive and we want to come back.
“I believe that we have had some inconsistency that was linked to different reasons but I never questioned the deep desire within this squad, nor did I question their potential.
“However there was a lot of scepticism around the squad at the start of the season that affected our supporters, our environment and the team a little bit.
“From now on I feel that we rebuilt enough signs to feel that we are strong enough to do well in the Premier League.”
Arsenal’s second chance has arrived.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 4 Dec 2008