On Wednesday night at Emirates, the stagger unwinds for Arsenal.
Ever since the derby with West Ham United was postponed for transport reasons on Boxing Day, Arsène Wenger’s side have held a game in hand on their rivals in the Premier League table.
Back then, Arsenal were fourth. However that very deferment, plus a tough set of subsequent games, have seen them drop seven points outside their leading quartet since then.
That makes the ‘swing’ on Wednesday very wide. Victory will leave them four points adrift of Tottenham, the fourth place team, with three of those under their control given they are yet to visit White Hart Lane.
If Arsenal draw they’ll be two full wins away. Defeat, of course, would be a body blow. However at this stage the manager is not that mindful of the gap.
The defeats to Chelsea and Manchester City have been similar in nature - first-half errors, second-half revival. With ample time left in the season, Wenger is only concerned about getting a win on the board and improving his side’s home form. Remember their next three fixtures in the Premier League will be at Emirates.
“In order to create momentum, of course, winning the game in hand is important,” said the Frenchman. “But in football you win when you play well, so I believe we have to rely on what we did in the second half at Chelsea and bring that into this game. We must trust our qualities and focus on the way we want to play.
“We are on a good way to improving our home form and have a good opportunity to show it against West Ham. I am confident the team will be up for it and will give absolutely everything to achieve it.
“For me, what is worrying is just that we do not win the big games and that we do not get the results we want at the moment.
“The difference in points is not dramatic mathematically. The consistency of our performances within games is what is worrying me. When you see us in the first half, and us in the second half it is difficult to believe that we are the same team.”
But, at the same time, wrestling the initiative when trailing - as they have against Manchester City and Chelsea - suggests that his side are eminently capable. It is just a matter of putting it all together over 90 minutes.
“There is strength there, that is absolutely for sure,” said Wenger. “The spirit and the focus are there too. We need to get over this hurdle that we have at the moment, I am confident we will but of course we have not a lot of room and not a lot of time.”
We are on a good way to improving our home form and have a good opportunity to show it against West HamArsène Wenger
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski should be back after sickness. However Wenger has an issue in the defensive midfield role as Francis Coquelin injured his hamstring at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. The young Frenchman was already deputising for Mikel Arteta, who is still out with a calf problem.
The manager admitted he may even consider deploying a centre back in a more advanced role. However there are more straightforward midfield options in the shape of Aaron Ramsey, Abou Diaby or Emmanuel Frimpong.
“We have [an issue in defensive midfield],” he said. “It is a position where we are short anyway as Arteta is a player with a lot of experience. You could see in the last two [Premier League] games how he gives us stability. So it is an area where we are a bit vulnerable at the moment.
“[Filling in with a defender] is one of the possibilities we’ll look at. But, at the same time, we know that a centre half is a centre half!”
West Ham made a fine start after the promotion last season. However five points from a possible 21 and a smattering of injuries has forced Sam Allardyce into the transfer market.
Joe Cole returned to his mother club to bolster the midfield and they have taken Marouane Chamakh on loan from Arsenal. As a result the Moroccan is ineligible on Wednesday.
There have been media reports that Mohamed Diame may move in the opposite direction during this window. Wenger remained tight-lipped over those but did pour praise on the powerful Senegalese midfielder.
“He has a great presence and I’ve seen him in games where he’s had a big impact, for example against Chelsea. He can drive their midfield.
“West Ham are a team that have potential and can be dangerous. But I must tell you that at the moment my focus is more on how we want to play because we play at home, we want to dictate with the way we play, so that is vital. Of course they are a strong team physically with a good technical level as well, so it’s important that we defend well against their strengths and impose their game.”
The gap to fourth place is significant, of course, but it is important to remember that last season it was 10 points at the end of February. And, although his team face four huge games in 11 days, the manager continues to see opportunity where his critics see problems.
“For me it should not be different to last year but it will be tough,” said Wenger
“Tottenham as well as Everton are fighting in there this time but I think we can do it and that we will do it. However we cannot waste any time.
“These four games are a massive test. A big, big test.
“First of all we must see how we respond on Wednesday and then we have a FA Cup game at Brighton and, after that, we play Liverpool and Stoke.
“So it’s a very important moment of the season for us. But what is important is always to win the next game.”
And the next game is the crucial one in hand.
Arsenal: Coquelin (hamstring), Arteta, Rosicky (both calf), Gervinho (international duty), Fabianski (ankle)
West Ham: Carroll (knee), McCartney (knee), Wellington (match fitness)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