By Richard Clarke
In football, reputations can be hard to shake.
Over the past 14 years, Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal have been labelled with many terms – good and bad. You can pretty much take your pick from a rainbow of colourful tabloid terms – from fluent to fragile, irresistible to ill-disciplined.
But there is one description that the Frenchman will not accept anymore.
Arsenal head to Manchester City on Sunday for a game that has massive implications for their season.
By May it seems likely that Roberto Mancini’s big-spending side will have formally taken Liverpool’s seat at the Big Four table. The sky blue side now have sky-high expectations and the hype surrounding them is following the same trajectory.
But then Sunday is seismic for Arsenal now. Having played so well for no reward at Chelsea last month, Wenger requires the performance AND the points at Eastlands.
Otherwise you may hear them, albeit prematurely, labelled ‘also-rans’ on Monday.
While the defeat at Stamford Bridge was a crushing disappointment in certain respects, for the manager at least, it did have significant benefits. Like nailing that ‘soft’ reputation for good.
“I still get this criticism a lot,” he said. “But I feel we have matured. Yes we lost the game at Chelsea but I never felt that was because we were too soft. I never felt we were dominated physically.
“On the day they scored two exception goals but overall we had as many chances and as much of the game as they had. We are close to really showing our special quality. But we have to transfer that into a big title game.
“I feel we are a much more competitive side now. At 18 or 19 years of age - unless you have exceptions - you do not have the same body build and experience. You can be impressed upon a bit more at 18 than 22 or 23 because you are a man at 23.
“So we are not anymore what I could sometimes see - a soft team. That’s finished.”
There may be only one place between Manchester City and Arsenal right now but the contrasts are stark. They are arguably the two most financially secure clubs in the top flight but have achieved that status by vastly different means.
Meanwhile the distinction in playing styles is best illustrated by the following stat. Arsenal have had 121 goal attempts this season in the Premier League, the highest in the division. Manchester City may have acquired an array of costly forwards but they have mustered only 70 – the fourth lowest tally.
If we are sticking with labels then Arsenal are “cavalier” and City are “cagey”.
However, importantly, Wenger rejects the notion that Mancini’s midfield heavily favours destruction over construction.
“I expect them to play De Jong, Barry and Yaya Toure,” he said. “They are three midfielders who can both defend and attack. Even Yaya Toure is as well a creative player, he is not only defensive.”
Bacary Sagna returns for Arsenal following a thigh injury but, as expected, Laurent Koscielny (back) will not figure. Jack Wilshere starts his three-game suspension but Cesc Fabregas is available and working his way back to full sharpness after a month out. Significantly the Spaniard was not present at Stamford Bridge.
Right now, Arsenal need a big win.
They were beaten home and away by both Manchester United and Chelsea last season while Manchester City might have done the same thing if Mancini had shown more ambition at Emirates Stadium late in the campaign.
The Frenchman is right to draw positives from the Stamford Bridge game but a defeat is still a defeat. No-one wants to be a gallant loser for long.
Between 1996 and 2006 Arsenal won seven straight League games at Manchester City but the home side have since won three out of four – including an explosive 4-2 early last season.
“The big games are always decided by the first goal,” remembered Wenger. “In that match Manchester City scored the first goal and then they took advantage.
“But in the big games you have to do first what you do normally. You always feel you are under special pressure to perform exceptionally but it is a matter of just focussing on doing well what you know you can do. We have to relax and play our game.
“For me, overall Manchester City are a side in the same level as Manchester United.
“But I am convinced that we convinced people we can stay in this title race with our game at Chelsea. What we want to do is transform a good performance into a positive result.
“Let’s just turn up with the same attitude and the same performance again and I’m sure we will not always be unlucky.”
‘Unfortunate’. Now that would be surely the worst reputation of all.
But in the end, it is down to Arsenal to make a name for themselves on Sunday.Copyright 2016 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