By Richard Clarke
“We are in a good, positive mood I would say,” smiled Arsène Wenger ahead of the trip to Everton on Wednesday night. “We have created some momentum of course but now it is about focusing on the next run to keep it going. That means playing with the quality we have had recently as well as the team attitude and spirit we have shown.
“It is a key time now. The fixtures are difficult for Arsenal, for Chelsea, for Tottenham. It will be about who does the best and who does the best will be the team who focuses on the next game, on the next result and on the next quality of the game. That is what we want to do, of course, just focus on our next game and try to do as well as we can.”
The Arsenal manager has every reason to be confident right now. Five straight wins have seen them not only solidify their place in the top four but narrow the gap on Tottenham to just one point.
Had their north London rivals held on to that early 2-0 lead at Emirates just over three weeks ago they would have stretched their advantage to a seemingly unassailable 13 points. Since then Arsenal have reeled them in. If they do finish in the top three, their eventual 5-2 derby win will be seen as the moment Tottenham were hooked. You feel Arsenal would not have stormed back to beat Newcastle last Monday without it.
However Wenger will be very aware that certain games can bring such ‘rolls’ to a juddering halt. Perhaps the best two examples came against Birmingham: the 2-2 draw at St Andrews in late February 2008 when they lost Eduardo to injury and a late goal prevented them going eight points clear; then there was the Carling Cup final last season when Obafemi Martins’ last-gasp strike stole the trophy.
“It is so fragile that it is just down to the next performance,” said Wenger. “Therefore that is what we want to focus on. We have come out of the Newcastle game and not played for nine days so we had a little bit of a breather.
“Now it is important for us to focus again and keep the momentum going.”
A clean bill of health will help. Thomas Vermaelen got a kick on his calf before he prodded home that last-second winner against Newcastle last Monday so Wenger can choose from the same squad. In addition, Carl Jenkinson and Andre Santos have returned from injury in recent weeks while Abou Diaby made a scoring return for the Reserves at Liverpool on the eve of this match. Fit and in-form, it is easy to see why Wenger believes his side have turned a corner.
“I feel so, yes,” he said. “Unfortunately it is a bit late in the season because January and February are important months in England, especially in the Champions League. We have seen we had no midfield at all on the bench when one week or two weeks later we would have had that. So I am very happy we have the players back. It is a bit late but not too late to finish in a strong way.”
Arsenal have lost just one of their last 12 fixtures against Everton and can boast three wins and a draw in their previous four trips to the blue half of Liverpool. However that record jars against your memories of points prised from Goodison’s tight grasp.
“Everton are usually a side that have problems starting [the season] but always finish strongly,” said Wenger. “They are resilient, they keep going plus they have a manager with experience and competence. That's why they always come back when they have a starting problem. Overall you can say they are one of the consistent teams in the Premier League.”
But they have also consistently struggled to score goals in recent years. It is true again this season - only Wigan and Stoke have hit the net fewer times in the Premier League and their leading scorer has just four to his name. In their 1-0 defeat at Emirates Stadium in December they failed to get a shot on target. But that is balanced by a defensive record bettered only by Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs.
“Yes, they are a team who, when you look at the numbers, do not score many and do not concede many,” said Wenger. “But they are dangerous on crosses, and they are a team that always has a good technical level overall. Nobody goes to Everton and thinks 'OK, it will be alright', everybody expects a tough opponent and that is what we will get.
“We'll see if our nine-day break makes a difference. Nobody scientifically can explain that to you. Mentally and nervously it is sometimes good to have a little breather but the difficulty always is to switch on straight away again and put your brain into competitive mood. When you are out of competition that is always what is at stake.”
The collective brain of this Arsenal side has been hard to assess this season. Plenty of knee-jerk analysts will now look back on the August pontifications with embarrassment – and their late-January ones for that matter. But then, even within games, the form of Wenger’s men can swing – particularly away from home.
They have trailed in four of their six wins and been ahead in three of their six defeats. A statistic that surprised even their manager.
“It is absolutely amazing,” said Wenger. “We were leading at Swansea, at Fulham, at Blackburn for example but at Liverpool we were 1-0 down and won 2-1. However the periods where we have been leading and got caught back were periods when we had played in Europe just before or when we had no defenders on the flanks. That exposes you a little bit more.”
This time there are few injuries and no distractions from continental or cup competitions. There are 10 games left this season and that figure will be down to eight by Saturday night.
A month ago, scraping fourth would have done. Now third is almost becoming an expectation.
Arsenal have found their best form at the right time and only need to hold their nerve for a few more weeks to achieve target No 1 if not target No 2.
But this particular side defies labels. So expect a few more peaks and troughs – between games and within games – before anything is achieved.
Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Mertesacker (ankle), Coquelin (hamstring), Frimpong (knee)
Everton: Rodwell (hamstring), Coleman (thigh) and Gibson (knee).
Arsenal have scored more goals against Everton than any other team in the Premier League
Everton are the highest-placed team in the Premier League with a negative goal difference
Everton have finished out of the top eight just once in the last eight years.
David Moyes recently celebrated 10 years at Everton. His record is P379 W152 D104 L123
Robin van Persie has hit 44 goals in his last 45 Premier League games
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