By Richard Clarke
“You can call it naivety,” said Arsene Wenger discussing Arsenal’s problems. “But that’s a harsh word.”
His side have been called worse this week.
The manager was trying to explain the problems Arsenal are trying to overcome at the moment.
Defeats to Tottenham and Braga in the past week have left some hair-trigger lips uttering the word “crisis”. But while the disappointment is deep and undeniable, the situation is in serious danger of being overstated.
If Arsenal win at Villa on Saturday they go top of the Premier League.
That’s top, first, head of the pile.
OK it should be temporary but then it was expected to be that way last weekend. Back then the Premier League predictor confidently proclaimed Arsenal would beat Spurs then Chelsea would win at Birmingham.
However this is not a normal campaign for everyone, including Wenger’s men. Arsenal were hounded after the losing at home to Newcastle, then lauded for coming back with wins at Wolves and Everton. Make no mistake the nature of that derby defeat will linger for a long, long time but it did not change too much in the table.
The facts say Arsenal are third. The critics say the past week had proved they are ill-equipped to win the title.
But then you could argue that so are the two teams above them.
In short, Arsenal have their problems - as do everyone else. It may only take a little consistency to win this mish-mash of a title race so let’s roll with the punches and get on with it.
“The Premier League overall has become stronger because of the lower teams,” said Wenger at Friday’s press conference. “That explains it.
“If you look at the fixtures, all the big teams have played a huge number of games in the last month if you are counting the Carling Cup, the Champions League and the internationals. They suffer because of that.
“I feel there is no complacency among the top teams. It’s just that the games are difficult for everybody.
“There is a mental aspect too. The lower teams have lost fear because one result added to the other makes a difference. Birmingham think ‘look at what Sunderland have done, why should we not do it?’ This leading by example certainly has an effect.
“It tests us all but, at the end of the day, the League is a marathon. I think the difference of quality - when you have less Champions League games and other teams involved in the FA Cup as well - will level it out and the big teams will come through. I hope so.”
History would say the Frenchman is right. The ‘Big Four’ got their name by being in the top spot in May not November. But all the top sides need to improve in order to be certain of renewing their membership.
That includes Arsenal and Wenger knows he may have to curb the more cavalier impulses in his side to make certain.
“In some circumstances, we are not cautious enough,” he said. “For example against Spurs there's a free-kick for us and then a goal for them. At Braga it was exactly the same.
“I think this team has a fantastic attitude and spirit. They want so much to deliver. But sometimes they forget the basic cautiousness.
“You can call it naivety - but that’s a harsh word.”
Still, Wenger does feel a little hard done by this week. In both games, his side put themselves in a highly creditable position only to hand over the initiative. That re-kindled an old-criticism – the one about the lack of ruthlessness and a clinched-fist kind of leader in midfield.
“When you don't win your games people always find problems with the team,” responded Wenger when the issue put in front of him. “But is it the main problem we have? I'm not convinced.
“If you look at the number of shots we've had and chances opponents have created you don't come to that conclusion.
“We should have beaten Tottenham five or six and the turning point was the penalty.
“We lost in Braga also in special circumstances. I agree we didn't create enough but we were unlucky. After 79 minutes maybe we wanted to win too much and then, when we went down to 10 men, we got caught on the counter-attack. But if we win the penalty we win the game.”
In Portugal, Arsenal lost Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) for at least two weeks and Emmanuel Eboue (knee ligaments) for at least four weeks.
Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin may be back in the squad after being rested in midweek. Manuel Almunia is now fit but lacks match sharpness.
Number crunching on this game has an interesting symmetry to it. Arsenal begin the day in third place but have taken the most points away from home in the top flight. They have the best record in the Premier League against sides in the bottom half of the table.
As for Villa, they are 13th but have the fourth best home form. They have won once in eight games and possess the worst record in the Premier League against teams in the top half of the table.
Wenger’s side are unbeaten in their last 11 Premier League fixtures at Villa Park. In fact they have only lost once in 23 games against the Midlanders – that 2-0 defeat at Emirates in November 2008.
Everything points to an Arsenal win but then it did at half time against Spurs last weekend. This is just not a form-book friendly Premier League.
“Villa Park is always a very entertaining game and always a difficult place to go,” said Wenger.
“Aston Villa are a good side but you don’t have to say that anymore. When you go away in the Premier League the only advantage you have now is that you do not need to warn your team that the opponent is quality.
“Everywhere you go there is quality.”
All Arsenal really need to do is put theirs on display on Saturday.
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