By Richard Clarke
"Life is there for change,” mused Arsène Wenger at the end of his press conference. “Life is there for movement."
How Arsenal need a bit of movement in their recent results against Chelsea.
Look away now if you are of a nervous disposition. Here come the stats.
Chelsea have won their last five games against Arsenal. In fact Manchester United and Chelsea have triumphed in 14 of their last 18 against Wenger’s men. Didier Drogba has played against the Emirates Stadium side 13 times – winning ten, drawing three and scoring 13 times.
It is a millstone of a record that looms large over their build up every time Arsenal take on one of their major title challengers. And these miserable numbers were trotted out again before Chelsea’s visit to Emirates Stadium on Monday night.
It was the same sort of thing a fortnight earlier when Wenger’s men travelled to Old Trafford – and the result was all too familiar. But that does not mean the dynamic of the Big Three has stayed the same.
While they have their frailties, Arsenal are certainly stronger and older this season than in previous years. The Frenchman argues that time is working on his side. As Wenger philosophised in his opening line, everything changes… always. Maturity eventually turns into plain old age and is replaced the youth of yesterday.
Arsenal fans simply can’t wait for that shift to occur.
“I believe that my players are quite solid mentally,” said the manager. “But they have not won yet and that is a mental hurdle everyone in life has to get over.
“One day you want to win and you show that you can win. But for that you need to be tough. That makes you even stronger but you still need to believe.
“Remember I've seen the Frank Lampards and Rio Ferdinands at 20 with West Ham,” he went on. “They went down to the second tier.
“Do not forget these Arsenal players at 20 went to the semi-final of the Champions League, the final some of them. So they have the mental strength.
“We have had an opportunity to win the title in recent years and, OK, we didn't win it. But we are in a strong position now, why should we worry whether we can do it or not?
“We need a big win, yes. And Chelsea can be an opportunity, of course. It is certainly something that will speed up the maturing of the team.
“Scared is a big word. But we have played with a little bit of restriction in the past. It's down to the fact that the team wants to do so well, they are so keen to prove everybody wrong. That creates a little bit of a handbrake feeling in the team. But we will naturally get rid of that slowly.
“To be in a race for the title we know that to beat Chelsea, Man United and Man City at home will be vital.”
Wenger is clear on that point – Emirates Stadium will decide Arsenal’s League position. If you leave those defeats at Chelsea and Manchester United on their record but turn the home defeats against West Brom, Newcastle and Tottenham into victories then they would be seven points clear going into Christmas.
All of Arsenal’s six-pointers take place in North London from now on. Win those – and keep up that very decent away record – then they could well be champions.
Wenger’s injury list is about as light as it has been all season. Lukasz Fabianski (hip) and Abou Diaby (ankle) would have been involved against Stoke if the weather had not intervened. That postponement also allowed Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie to work on their match sharpness.
Kieran Gibbs (ankle) is out until the start of January and Thomas Vermaelen (Achilles) won’t return before the back-end of the month – though this has been wrongly reported as a ‘new blow’ for the Belgian. It is just a case of Wenger being cautious in his estimation of a player who has suffered a set-back earlier in his recuperation. Manuel Almunia (ankle) is still out.
Chelsea are on a wretched run that has seen them take six points from their last seven games. The spell started at the beginning of November when assistant Ray Wilkins left Stamford Bridge. His dismissal has been cited as the major reason for their decline but surely the absence of Lampard and John Terry must be equally important. Drogba has also been struggling for form, possibly due to the effects of malaria.
However all three were on the pitch a fortnight ago when the Ivorian striker missed a last-minute penalty at Tottenham that could have sent them top of the table. The postponement of last Sunday’s clash with Manchester United means Lampard, in particular, will lack playing time. The Englishman has had an outstanding injury record since arriving at Stamford Bridge. His absence has coincided with a decline few people predicted.
“It was a surprise because they looked for a long time unbeatable,” admitted Wenger. “But they remain a strong team and we consider them a side we want to beat. During the season, any team has a period where they have a little bit less good results and that happened to Chelsea.
"But let's not focus too much on any weakness of Chelsea because that would not be right. They've experienced players, they always deliver good games against us so I don't expect them to come to the Emirates and lie down.
"To beat Chelsea we will have had to have deliver a top-class team performance. We need to add something to our last two performances and I'm hopeful we can do that at home.
"It's a very important game for both teams,” concluded Wenger. “But for us it is a hurdle that can strengthen our belief.
“I’ll consider it a psychological boost if we beat them.”
And, of course, a change for the better.
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