By Richard Clarke
For Arsène Wenger, the “craziness” of the festive period is also its strength.
The Arsenal manager takes a holistic view to the Christmas and New Year games. This season there were 12 points available from encounters against Chelsea (h), Wigan (a), Birmingham (a) and Manchester City (h). Wenger’s men have taken four so far but they go to St Andrews on the first day of 2011 with the undeniable feeling it should have been more.
Some of the momentum gained from, at last, beating Chelsea was worn away by Wigan’s late equaliser on Wednesday night. However who would be unhappy with 10 points including victories over two title rivals? And that is still in Arsenal’s hands.
“I see the Christmas period as a whole,” said the manager on Friday. “We had a little disadvantage in the way the fixtures were organised compared to some other clubs. But I have to face the problem this way.
“At the end of the day we know that Christmas will be very important because we play Chelsea and Man City, and we have two away games against Wigan and Birmingham. So for us it will certainly have an impact on the rest of the season.”
The trip to the Midlands is Arsenal’s third game in six days. They only way they will be this busy again is if cup ties and postponements need to be shoehorned into the final weeks of the campaign. But Wenger knows Christmas is different in his adopted country.
“It is the charm and craziness of English football,” he admitted. “Personally I like it, I have been vaccinated after the years I have been here.
“It certainly contributes to the promotion of English football. The whole world stops and England goes on. That means when Arsenal play Chelsea, the world has no choice than to watch.
“They don’t work and are bored so they watch English football - which is not boring.
“Yes I would like a winter break but after Christmas. I would like to keep that tradition personally and create a break after January 2 for say for two weeks.
“We can go on holiday for one week and after we can prepare for one week.
“As it is, we play Man City then three days later we play Leeds and four days after that we play Ipswich. The players are under massive pressure so, when you play a 2-2 at Wigan, it is not the worst result.
“Mentally it is all very demanding but you have always a game in front of you and what is important is the next one.”
It was this packed schedule that precipitated those eight changes at the DW Stadium but the ‘big guns’ are back for Birmingham. Cesc Fabregas has seen out his suspension. Robin van Persie and Alex Song return after being rested.
The only enforced absentee is Abou Diaby, who will be out for three weeks with the calf strain he collected at Wigan on Wednesday.
The day before that game, Birmingham had once again proved their pedigree at St Andrews with a last-gasp equaliser against Manchester United. They did exactly the same thing to Arsenal when Wenger’s men were eyeing a late run for the title last season.
Only Everton have won at Birmingham this season while only Chelsea and Manchester United have conceded fewer goals at home. But Alex McLeish’s side have only hit the net nine times themselves – the lowest in the top flight. Expect this one to be tight.
But then Arsenal have conceded in each of their last seven Premier League games – their leakiest run in six years. And the manager is well aware Birmingham, like Wigan, have a habit of grabbing goals late on.
“Well, the best way to create a problem is sometimes to talk about it,” responded Wenger when the idea was put to him. “You could see that Birmingham scored late against Man United the other night and when your team is ahead in England you have the mental side of [the opponents] that will never give up. No matter where you go if you are only one goal up you can concede a goal.
“And what happens this season is the teams all play for Europe or not to go down so every game is a cup final,” Wenger went on. “You play for your survival or you to be in Europe and that makes the League so interesting and so compact.
“Of course everybody has quality too. When you go to Wigan they have Hugo Rodallega, Charles N’Zogbia who are quality players and it will be the same at Birmingham. You look at Birmingham against Man United, they had Alex Hleb and Nikola Zigic on the bench that means in the teams who play in the second half of the table still have top-class players.”
Like last season, Arsenal ended the year in third place. Like last season, the prevailing opinion is that Manchester United, at least, will be too strong for them down the stretch.
But then, as Wenger points out, the prevailing opinion has changed since August.
“For a while it looked as though Chelsea were running away with it,” he said. “The fact that they dropped a little bit in November opened up the League up. You wouldn’t have expected that at the start of the season.
“But the most consistent team will win it.”
And, despite the disappointment of Wednesday, Arsenal are in a position to become that team.Copyright 2017 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