By Rob Kelly
“It was a very positive factor for the development of the team to go there and win. We can be inspired by that victory because a repeat of that kind of performance could give us some very important points.” - Arsene Wenger
There will come a game in every season that is an anomaly, an exception to the rule. That game came on Monday night for Arsenal.
They had 68 per cent possession against Swansea, 23 shots to the visitors’ eight, made more than double the number of passes, delivered close to four times as many crosses into the box - and yet they lost.
The post-mortem threw up any number of reasons to explain away this most unlikely of results. Fatigue and profligacy were offered up by the case for the defence and the counsel for the prosecution respectively - yet one man remained unmoved.
Arsene Wenger was unhappy to see his side’s 10-match unbeaten run in the Premier League come to an end, but he saw the match for what it was: a blip in an otherwise fine run of form. This most experienced of managers will not be panicking, even with a trip to Old Trafford next.
“The overall performance was positive - we had a slow start and became stronger during the game,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. “In the end maybe we had given a lot and were not cautious enough to stop them from scoring.
“They never looked like scoring and maybe we were not on our toes enough to at least get a draw - if we couldn’t win it, [at least] don’t lose it. In the end we were caught but overall it is the kind of game that you play 10 times and nine of them you win.
“We want to learn from the defeat and bounce back, and overall the team is on a very positive trend. Let’s continue that.”
Wenger’s decision to field an unchanged side for the fifth league match in a row - the first time that's happened at Arsenal since 1994 - was perfectly understandable. If it ain’t broke and all that.
But with three matches of the Premier League campaign remaining, and a second successive FA Cup final on the horizon, there must be a temptation to rotate. The likes of Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott are itching to get involved and the manager has indicated he may change things around at Old Trafford.
"It was a very positive factor for the development of the team to go there and win"
“If the players are tired, I’m ready to do it because I have a very strong squad and I haven’t decided yet what I will do,” Wenger said. “We have three games to finish the season and it’s important that everybody contributes until the end. It’s important that at some stage you freshen up.”
Despite Monday night’s result, Arsenal will head to the north-west in confident mood. Their five successive away wins is their best run in 20 months, and the last time they faced Manchester United in their own back yard - in March’s FA Cup quarter-final - they came away with a famous victory.
“It was a very important win there,” Wenger noted. “It was a very positive factor for the development of the team to go there and win. We knew that if we went through, we could get to the final and have a chance to win the FA Cup.
“That was very positive because we knew it was a tricky draw. It improved the
confidence of the team to [know they can beat] anybody. We can be inspired by that because a repeat of that kind of performance could give us some very important points.”
Wenger will have to do without Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (groin), Mathieu Debuchy (hamstring) and Mikel Arteta (match fitness), while Danny Welbeck (knee) is a major doubt.
This has been a season of change for United. They went into the campaign on the crest of a wave following Louis van Gaal’s appointment, but patchy early results tempered that initial optimism.
Since then a fine run of form during the second half of the year helped United them into the Champions League places and, despite a recent downturn, they can be satisfied with how things have panned out.
"They had a bit of a similar development [to us] during the season until they lost those three games [recently], but they were on the way up, like we are"
Despite some teething problems this term, Wenger expects another big test against a team and a manager he has complete respect for.
“They had a bit of a similar development [to us] during the season until they lost those three games [recently], but they were on the way up, like we are,” the boss said. “You have to know and analyse your squad and then decide what you do, and [Van Gaal] has done that well. Overall you feel they have made progress.”
One of the key figures in United’s rejuvenation has been Marouane Fellaini. The Belgium international was maligned during a difficult first season at the club, but his physical presence and aerial prowess have proved critical in recent months.
Per Mertesacker has already pinpointed the midfielder as a pivotal figure in the United line-up, and Wenger will hope Francis Coquelin can keep him quiet, as he did in March’s clash at Old Trafford.
“If I decide to play him, of course [he will play a similar role as last time],” the manager said. “His strength is to stop the opponent from using their strengths against us and if he starts the game then that will certainly be one of his main tasks.”
While both clubs may have secured their all-important top-four place, no Arsenal v Manchester United match will ever lack for intensity.
There is still much to play for on either side. Arsenal’s defeat to Swansea has given the Red Devils a glimmer of hope that they can snatch third place, thus avoiding a Champions League qualifier this summer.
The Gunners, meanwhile, know that victory would slam that door shut - while they will also be eager to underline the freak nature of Monday night’s result. It all points to another fiery encounter.
“We want to finish by going step by step and bouncing back,” Wenger concluded. “It’s important to bounce back with a positive performance on Sunday.
“It is not the most comfortable situation when you have to go through [Champions League] qualifiers, because now the opponents are more and more difficult because the pre-seasons are shorter and more disturbed by national team games.
“We have the opportunity to avoid it so let’s do it. We have worked extremely hard throughout the whole season to come back into this position, so now let’s take advantage of the hard work that we have done and continue until the end.”
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