By Rob Kelly
“We know we are in an important period of the season where our commitment needs to be at the top level. Now consistency will decide our future. That’s why this game against Villa is important.” - Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
It has been some time coming, but it finally seems as if Arsenal are on a roll.
In a stop-start season in which teams across the Premier League have struggled to build meaningful momentum, the Gunners suddenly have four straight wins for the first time. Now the challenge is to keep the wheels turning.
After the high of their storming of the Etihad, last Sunday’s game at Championship strugglers Brighton & Hove Albion was a more prosaic challenge for Arsene Wenger’s men. But following a day of FA Cup shocks 24 hours earlier that almost defied logic, a warning shot had been fired across their bows.
What followed was a professional display that was not borne out by the final scoreline. A 3-2 win may appear a close-run thing, but in reality the Gunners - inspired by the evergreen Tomas Rosicky - were always too good for their hosts and, were it not for some momentary defensive lapses, would have run out more convincing winners.
“I’m pleased with the progress we made because we started strong and that certainly made the difference - the fact that we had good pace from the start,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. “You can see at the moment that the team is at a good level and it’s now just [a case of] getting that in every single game and earning the right to win.
“That means being committed in every single game. We have another opportunity to do that against Villa and of course we know we are in front of a very important period. How commit in every single game will make the difference. We know we have some ground to make up and the fight around the top four is very difficult. The target is consistency now.”
With a rapidly clearing treatment room, the manager has some selection posers ahead of Sunday’s game against Aston Villa.
New signing Gabriel will come straight into contention after completing his move from Villarreal, although Alexis Sanchez (hamstring) faces a late test and Danny Welbeck (thigh) will miss out ahead of a probable return in time for next week’s north London derby.
|Arsenal: Welbeck (thigh), Wilshere (ankle), Diaby (calf), Arteta (ankle), Oxlade-Chamberlain (groin), Alexis (hamstring - doubt), Debuchy (shoulder)
Aston Villa: Delph (Calf - doubt), Agbonlahor (hamstring - doubt), Cole (hamstring - doubt), Vlaar (knee), Senderos (calf - doubt), Kozak (leg)
However, with Mesut Ozil back to full fitness - and back on the scoresheet - competition for the team’s No 10 role will be hotly contested over the coming months.
Santi Cazorla’s magnificent displays have seen Wenger claim the Spaniard is in the “form of his life”, while the manager hailed Rosicky after his masterclass at the Amex Stadium.
It leaves the Frenchman with plenty to ponder, but he is more than satisfied with his lot as the January transfer window prepares to shut.
“We have a good, balanced squad now,” he said. “It’s a compact, short squad but it’s of top quality and the advantage it can have is that many players have been rested. Aaron Ramsey had a good rest, and Olivier Giroud, Laurent Koscielny, Ozil and Rosicky have not been overloaded with games. Theo Walcott is now coming back slowly, so all these players are not overloaded.”
It has been a difficult season for Aston Villa - but their record at Emirates Stadium should serve as a warning for the Gunners. Paul Lambert’s side have earned 11 points there in the Premier League - with only Chelsea and Manchester United having fared better.
But goals have a proved a particular problem this term. They have gone eight hours and 42 minutes without scoring in the top flight and only Derby in 2007/08 have scored less goals after 22 games than Aston Villa this season (11).
"There’s a distortion between the quality they have going forward [and their goal record]"
It has hampered their progress, but Wenger insists that with Christian Benteke back after injury, they have the ability to cause his side problems if they are not at their best.
“There’s a distortion between the quality they have going forward [and their goal record],” the Arsenal manager said. “When you look at the names they have on their teamsheet, they have Benteke, Agbonlahor and Weimann who can all score goals.
“They suffered a lot from Agbonlahor’s injury after Benteke was out for a long time. Benteke was one of their main goalscorers, and he also provides [assists] because he’s so good in the air. When everybody’s there, it is a team that looks quite dangerous going forward.
“Maybe we [should] not to rely too much on these statistics, but just be focused on defending well, even if Villa have not scored so many goals.”
With February upon us, we are now entering the critical point in the season when teams will rise as others fall away.
Arsenal have tended to belong in the former camp in recent years, and with key players returning and results on an upward trajectory there is renewed optimism about the months ahead.
But, as Wenger has reiterated again and again, his side’s commitment must be total if they are to fulfil their potential. They will be heavy favourites against a goal-shy Aston Villa, but with the wind in their sails and an attacking line-up that is the envy of their rivals they will be confident of building on recent results.
Wenger has certainly liked what he has seen since the turn of the year - but he knows that in a highly-competitive league, anything less than consistent application will be punished.
“We know we are in an important period of the season where our commitment needs to be at the top level,” he said. “Now consistency will decide our future. That’s why this game against Villa is important.
“Over Christmas, we played three away games out of four, and we gave a lot at West Ham and maybe paid a little bit for it. If you take that Southampton game away, our consistency has been quite good over the recent months. That’s what we want to continue now.”
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