By Richard Clarke
“It's game after game and it's another big one coming up on Saturday. We know away from home we want to do well. It's a big opponent and it's a good opportunity to show from game to game we are moving forward.” - Arsène Wenger
The set up
It is suddenly getting pretty big, pretty quickly for Arsenal. Arsène Wenger always considers the Champions League play-off to be the most important game of the season as it is a gateway to greater things.
|Arsenal: Arteta (thigh), Gnabry (knee) Gibbs (hamstring), Sanogo (hamstring), Ospina (thigh), Walcott (knee)
Everton: Barkley (knee)
Meanwhile the prelude to that, Everton away on Saturday, will also give us the first proper indication of his side’s title credentials.
Trips to the leading contenders were marked with “must do better” in Wenger’s end-of-term report last season. They registered three points on the soil of the top seven - the win at White Hart Lane.
The 3-0 defeat at Goodison Park in April could have been critical given that it put Champions League qualification out of Arsenal’s hands. In fact Wenger’s men would rescue their season by winning every game they played for the remainder of the campaign.
If you believe Arsenal are still some way from full sharpness then a 2-1 win over a doughty Palace side and goalless draw at a surprising Besiktas outfit is certainly solid enough.
Goals - the other main improvement required in that Wenger report - have been at a premium but, in many ways, his team looked more incisive in Turkey despite being shut out.
“Having watched the game again, I believe we had the needed chances,” said Wenger. “Olivier Giroud had a few good chances and that's already better [than Saturday].”
You would think the potential return of Mesut Ozil could… ahem… assist that. The other German World Cup winners are available but, speaking on Thursday, Wenger could not be precise on their integration this weekend.
“They are part of the [training] squad and, of course, they are important players,” he said. “How will I use them? Certainly not the three together because they lack a competitive edge. Will I use one or two? I don't know yet.”
Per Mertesacker’s return and Mikel Arteta’s injury opens up the possibility of Calum Chambers stepping up into a defensive midfield position. The 19-year-old has excelled at centre back so far.
Everton knocked very hard on the door of the top four last season and the expensive permanent acquisition of Romelu Lukaku suggests they are preparing to batter their way through now.
According to Wenger, the move from a top-eight to a top-four team demands that sort of financial bravery.
“It is a difficult position to [alter] because it's a change of expense,” said the Frenchman. “To be regularly in there demands another effort on the financial point of view as well a consistency and a presence to get the income regularly.
“Anybody who is ambitious today has to move forward on the amount of money they spend. Luckily our clubs are in a position to do it because the money coming in is better than it was three or four years before. Clubs like Everton can today buy players between £20-30 million. That is huge of course.”
If you combine that change of mentality with a canny manager and a defence that let in only two less than champions Manchester City last season, then you have a challenge.
So it is perhaps the first big week of the season. The hurdles will only get bigger if Arsenal overcome Everton and Besiktas. But, right now, they seem quite enough.
Perhaps the results have been better than the performances so far. But that is no bad thing and three hours of competitive football is hardly a representative sample.
It “so far, so good” as it stands. If we can say that this time next week then we can say that Arsenal have started the season with confidence.