By Richard Clarke
“I feel we must be very, very cautious before this game,” said a stern Arsène Wenger at Thursday’s press conference.
“I believe West Brom are a very good team and we need a good performance. We are on a good run so for us it's down to focus and putting pressure on teams in every single game.
“Certainly West Brom will be one of the best teams we have played until now.”
Football managers are always worried men aren’t they? The key moments of their working week are spent staring bug-eyed and helpless at the edge of the technical area as their fate is decided before them.
Sometimes their worst fears are realised, just like Wenger’s were at Sunderland last weekend. But when he spoke to the media before Saturday’s game, the Frenchman’s ultra-caution seemed strangely incongruent with the overall mood.
Since Darren Bent’s last-gasp leveller at the Stadium of Light, Arsenal have posted great results on and off the pitch. The 4-1 victory at Tottenham was both cathartic and redemptive while Friday’s financial figures were those of a club who, pure and simply, know what they are doing.
Yes, the mood would be darker had Robbie Keane slid his shot inside and not against the post in the final minutes of normal time at White Hart Lane on Tuesday.
And yes, there is still an urgent need for a trophy but, this week, the Club clearly demonstrated its future.
Despite his conservatism, even the manager admits it is so far, so good this season.
“I am very happy with the start we have made,” admitted Wenger. “I have to say it is a pleasure to work with our players. Their focus and attitude are absolutely fantastic.”
The 60-year-old is far too experienced to be fooled by his own side’s free-scoring exploits at Emirates Stadium this term. They have hit six against Blackpool and Braga plus another four against Bolton last time. However the two domestic games have been closer than that.
“Most of the time it is down to our technical domination and the consequence of the fatigue created means there are openings in the last 20 minutes,” he said.
“Many times as well it is down to the fact we are leading by a smaller margin, and the teams have to come out at some stage. So we can take advantage.”
However, perhaps the key change this year is that Wenger’s squad appears to be stronger. The likes of Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere are not just decent young players who can fill in when required. Now, they can be matchwinners.
In addition, established first-teamers like Alex Song and Manuel Almunia are manning up in pressure positions. While Sebastien Squillaci, Marouane Chamakh and Laurent Koscielny have all shown an immediate return on their summer acquisition.
“The players I bring into the side know what it is to play for us,” said Wenger. “They are focussed and they are older – 23, 24 - and they know now that every game is difficult. We will be absolutely up for it - always.
“But also we have a style of play that everybody knows inside the Club,” he added. “That means some youngsters who have come out with good performances, like Wilshere, can take responsibility in big games.”
At Tottenham, Jack the Lad was at the centre of everything Arsenal did. He attempted 138 passes, one every 52 seconds, and laid on two goals. Henri Lansbury caught the eye, as did Gibbs before he limped off.
Fears of a broken metatarsal proved false but he is still highly likely to miss out on Saturday. There is optimism Abou Diaby will pass a fitness test on his ankle. Tomas Rosicky (ankle) and Emmanuel Eboue (knee) will also need checks.
Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) and Thomas Vermaelen (Achilles) will be out for another week at least. Squillaci is back after being rested in midweek, Song’s suspension is now over.
West Brom have made a handy start for a newly-promoted team and took the notable scalp of highly-fancied Birmingham last weekend. A much-changed side beat a similarly weakened Man City on Wednesday night in the Carling Cup.
Manager Roberto Di Matteo has added a few new faces this season, most notably Nigerian international striker Peter Odemwingie and former Wigan utility man Paul Scharner.
“They rested ten players in the Carling Cup, and so did Man City, so it is very difficult to compare that game,” said Wenger.
“But we do not speculate on any weakness of West Brom anyway, we just want to play at our best.
“What is important is we keep the momentum going and we can only do that if we are on full cylinders.
“I do not think we are in a position where we can take any game easy. It would be a fatal mistake. I am conscious of that and I am sure the players are focussed.
“We expect West Brom to play a good football game, because they try to play, that is why I am convinced it will be interesting.”
This is an easily over-looked game for Arsenal supporters. It comes just after a North London derby, just before a Champions League trip and with a massive game on the horizon.
The game at Chelsea next Sunday will be billed as the first true test of Arsenal’s title credentials. While the West Brom game is barely being billed at all; there were precious few questions on the Baggies in Wenger’s pre-match media work.
In tabloid-ese, if Wenger’s men beat Chelsea they could be champions. If they don’t beat West Brom they certainly won’t be.
Of course, it is never as simple as that. Arsenal do need to improve last season’s record against the other top sides. But, boring though it may be, “consistency” has always been Wenger’s watch-word.
While next Sunday is a potential ‘six-pointer’ at the top, they’ll need another 80 points to take the title whatever happens.
And most of those will come from straightforward wins such as the one Wenger is planning on Saturday.
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