By Richard Clarke
January was a dynamic and record-breaking month.
Arsenal played nine games for the first time in their history and kept the ‘plates’ spinning in all four competitions. Meanwhile, around them, the Premier League splashed out a stunning £215 million in transfer fees.
But, despite all that, it is February that may hold the key to this season.
After the weekend win over Huddersfield, Nicklas Bendtner described the next few weeks as “decisive” while Arsène Wenger suggested this month would produce the final jostling before a dash to the finishing line.
And so it is sure to be ‘elbows out’ when Everton visit Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night.
The Arsenal manager has presented himself with a pretty simple situation for the foreseeable future. He did not bring in that much-discussed defensive cover before the transfer window closed so he now knows the squad at his disposal until May. His side are still attacking on all fronts – with a place in the Carling Cup Final already assured – but he is not prepared to prioritise.
Therefore, throughout February, it is just a matter of rotating his team and sending them out with motivating words ringing in their ears.
Only defeat will really change the equation.
The policy has been working so far, Wenger’s men have built up momentum in 2011. Their Premier League record reads: P4 W3 D1 L0 F9 A0. In three Cup ties there has been brinkmanship but success.
While Arsenal were beating Ipswich last week to reach Wembley, Manchester United were finally fulfilling their game in hand. Both teams have now played 23 times but their next six are, depending on your viewpoint, an opportunity or a problem.
Wenger’s men have four out of six at home. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have four out of six away – including trips to Liverpool and Chelsea. The major discrepancy in their campaign has been a modest record outside of Old Trafford. If they are still top and unbeaten after that spell (which also includes Manchester City at home) then they will feel they have made a major stride towards the title.
“We know that to have a chance to win the League we have to win our home games,” said Wenger.
“At this stage a draw is not enough. I have said that many times and that is what we want to achieve on Tuesday night.
“We are going for all the competitions and this is an important part of the season when you don't want to lose your players. Going into the final sprint it is important that you have your best squad available.”
Sunday’s win cost Arsenal the services of Samir Nasri (hamstring) and Sebastien Squillaci (suspension). Denilson (hamstring) must be classed as a doubt as well but Bacary Sagna is likely to be available having recovered from his bang to the head against Ipswich.
Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou are expected to be reunited at centre back. The duo played 720 minutes of football (eight of the nine games) during January and, in that time, did not concede a Premier League goal.
Both will be pleased Tim Cahill is unlikely to play having featured for Australia in the Asian Cup Final in Qatar over the weekend.
Everton need the Australian back as soon as possible. They are 14th and must fear being sucked into a relegation battle. But it is 12 draws, the highest tally in the Premier League, that has left them down there.
They have actually lost only six times, one more than Wenger’s side, and, most significantly, they have been beaten just once against the top seven.
Like Arsenal, Everton only signed a young, for-the-future forward during the transfer window. But Tottenham relieved the Goodison Park side of Steven Pienaar.
The South African nearly gave them victory in this fixture last January only for Tomas Rosicky to crash home an equaliser in the final seconds.
“That was a sweat,” recalled Wenger. “It was a fortunate 2-2 because they deserved a win on the day. I remember Denilson being on the floor, them going through and missing a vital chance late on. That memory means we know we have a big game on our hands and we must be highly focused.
“I rate David Moyes as a very competent manager. He has character, intelligence and consistency – that last one is the most difficult thing in this job.
“Most managers do well one year and are not consistent but I feel Moyes has been consistent with his job so he's very good.
“If you look at Everton's record it is surprising because they lost only six games and we lost five. But we are at the top of the table and they are at the bottom of the table. The difference is they made so many draws.
“So it shows they are a team that are difficult to beat but this season they have not won as many games as they usually do. They have had not bad results but a draw in this League punishes you.”
So does weakness.
Arsenal are challenging for the title this season not because they have been unstoppable but because they have been merciless. They have lost five games more than Manchester United but drawn less than half the amount of the Old Trafford side. And, most importantly, they have dropped only five of the 39 points available against the bottom half of the table – the best record in the top flight.
That ruthless nature must continue on Tuesday against a doughty but cash-straped Everton and on Saturday when they visit a Newcastle side shorn of Andy Carroll.
Wenger may have kept his hands in his pocket throughout January but it is his team that have to show the mean streak now.Copyright 2013 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 1 Feb 2011