By Richard Clarke
Defeats are more important to Arsène Wenger than victories.
It is that the defeats that rankle. It is the defeats he retains. And it is the defeats that instigate change.
Take the West Brom game at Emirates Stadium on September 25 – the last loss before Wednesday’s 2-1 reverse at Shakhtar Donetsk. It happened six weeks ago yet it was still bouncing around the brain of the Arsenal manager before the visit of Newcastle on Sunday.
Since then they have squeezed out a couple of domestic victories – against Birmingham and West Ham - in home games that were previewed with little fanfare but proved to be typical blood-and-thunder Premier League battles. This weekend’s clash has the potential to be precisely the same.
Wenger went to the Ukraine in midweek knowing defeat was completely recoverable, no manager ever has the same security before a Premier League match. That’s why, at his pre-match press conference, the manager was looking backwards in order to move forwards.
“We were too sure that we would win the West Brom game,” recalled Wenger. “We will not repeat that against Newcastle. We know they are a good side and, on that front, the fact that they have beaten Sunderland 5-1 is a good warning for us.
“Against West Ham we knew before the game that it would be difficult. But what I liked very much is that we were very patient, intelligent and calm. I think I was most pleased with our patience.
“We were not as sharp or fluent as we can be but we were intelligent and didn’t make a defensive mistake like we did, for example, against Shakhtar.”
Between West Brom and Wednesday, Arsenal rattled through five straight wins. The run has fortified their season. They have reached the Quarter-Final of the Carling Cup, will surely progress in the Champions League and, according to Wenger, have stolen a minor march on some of the title rivals in the Premier League.
“If you look, we have got ourselves in a very interesting situation,” said the manager. “It’s now time for us to take advantage of that.
“When we went to Manchester City, we were three points behind them and on the same level as Tottenham. Today we have made a little difference with these clubs because we have had two good wins. So for us it’s important to continue to push forward now.
“You have to say Shakhtar are a good team. We did not play against an average side we played against a good side. I feel that to go 1-0 up, when we have beaten them 5-1 before, is still a hurdle you have to get over because you have to keep the same desire and efficiency. But I think the team is moving and maturing very quickly however, even when it goes very well, we can still lose a bit of the urgency.”
Part of the problem against Shakhtar was the loss of the entire central midfield from the previous game – Cesc Fabregas (hamstring), Alex Song (calf) and Denilson (groin). Andrey Arshavin (virus) was also missing. All four are likely to be back on Sunday, though the captain was set to undergo a fitness test.
In other good news, Robin van Persie returned to training for the first time since injuring his ankle at Blackburn on August 28 and Thomas Vermaelen is “a question of days” from fitness following a troublesome Achilles problem.
However Kieran Gibbs (knee) is still out and Wenger admitted concern over Abou Diaby’s on-going ankle injury.
While seventh is an encouraging position with a quarter of the campaign gone, in reality Newcastle have blown hot and cold this season. Home defeats to Blackpool and Stoke have been balanced by wins at Everton and West Ham. Then there was that 5-1 thrashing of Sunderland last weekend.
“They had a great game,” said Wenger. “But it has its advantages as we have been warned Newcastle are capable to be very strong and score goals.”
A victory on Sunday will take Arsenal within two points of Chelsea, who kick-off at Liverpool around 45 minutes after the final whistle in North London. It would be as near as Wenger’s side have been to the leaders this season.
“Of course you want to be as close as possible to Chelsea and to the top teams,” he said. “We know we have all the bigger teams away at the start of the season so it’s important to be strong at home. If you want to have an interesting part in this League it’s vital for us to dictate the games at Emirates.”
Right now, only Manchester United could possibly dispute Arsenal’s claim to be Chelsea’s main challengers. Just to emphasise the importance of that game, if West Brom had been beaten at Emirates six weeks ago, then Wenger would be preparing to go top (albeit temporarily) this weekend.
However only consistency and quality – the two most popular words in the Wenger lexicon – will win you the title. And the Frenchman knows his side are chasing a supremely assured Chelsea side.
“You sometimes think ‘they could drop a point today’ but they don’t,” he said. “However you must remember they are 30 or 31-years-old and they have they kind of experience. But we have played 10 games and so there is a long way to go.”
True enough. And with that in mind, Arsenal could do without another nail-biter. Remember, the West Ham game was within two minutes of being a set-back and it would beneficial to go to Wolves on Wednesday with a bounce in their step not lethargy in the legs.
These two games are potentially a six-point springboard for Wenger’s men given that, at the same time, Chelsea go to Anfield and then have a traditionally tricky local derby with Fulham.
Of course, Ancelotti’s side may well win both games but Arsenal must spend the next few days putting themselves in another “interesting situation”.
One that allows them to take full advantage should Chelsea slip up.
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