By Rob Kelly
“We have worked very hard to get where we are. Now it is about how much we can keep our focus, how much we can push ourselves to do well and on that front I cannot complain.” - Arsene Wenger
In the fiercely-fought, ultra-competitive world of the Premier League, any chance for a temporary breather should be welcomed - and that feels particularly true after Tuesday night’s edgy victory against Leicester.
Arsenal may have won, but it was not the most convincing of performances against the league’s bottom side. However, at this critical juncture of the season the bottom line is the three points, and that 2-1 win - no matter how uncomfortable - has moved them to within two points of third place.
For Arsene Wenger, the game may have posed questions of his side but it also revealed just how far the domestic game has come.
“The new situation in the Premier League is that the teams who are last in the league can beat anybody,” he told Arsenal Player. “You look at the quality of Leicester’s players and it’s quite frightening. One goes out and the one who comes in is also a quality player. That has changed.
“It wasn’t a relaxing game at all because first of all we played against a good Leicester side and it looked like our game died in the second half. Was it physical, was it mental? When Leicester came back to 2-1 it looked more like it could be a 2-2 than a 3-1.
“At the end of the day, after the Saturday game [against Tottenham], it was important for us to get three points. Having watched Wednesday night’s games again, many teams suffered and got away with the win in a bit of a lucky way.”
The Gunners may have “got away” with it against Leicester, but it was not all good news. The sight of Aaron Ramsey limping off with another hamstring problem was particularly unwelcome, as was the knock to Alexis Sanchez’s knee.
The latter could yet be in contention for Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round tie against Middlesbrough, but Ramsey joins Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Debuchy and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the sidelines.
"Now it is about how much we can keep our focus, how much we can push ourselves to do well"
It is a blow that has been partially offset by Jack Wilshere’s return to full training this week, but Wenger says the England international is unlikely to feature so soon after a lengthy absence.
“He hasn’t played one minute for three months and it will take him a while to get back to the top level again,” he said. “To lose Ramsey now, you cannot say because Wilshere is back we have replaced one player with another. Wilshere has worked very hard in a committed and focused way but he lacks competition.”
However, if there is one thing this Arsenal squad is not lacking elsewhere, it is competition. There are a number of intriguing match-ups emerging, from the battle between Wojciech Szczesny - set to start against Middlesbrough - and David Ospina, and Nacho Monreal v Kieran Gibbs.
“Until now we are all very focused and everybody’s on track, everybody in the group has a good mentality,” Wenger said. “We are all motivated. It’s a very important period for the club and for our season. We have worked very hard to get where we are. Now it is about how much we can keep our focus, how much we can push ourselves to do well and on that front I cannot complain.”
The perception may be that Arsenal are heavy favourites in a match against lower-league opposition. The reality is that there is more to this tie than meets the eye.
Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka has done a fine job since taking over at the Riverside, guiding his side to the top of the Championship - just one place lower in the pyramid than Leicester - after a run of just one defeat in 19 games.
Boro have also won six matches in succession, a run that includes an impressive 2-0 victory at Manchester City in the fourth round that Wenger says serves as “a warning” for his side.
“It wasn’t a freak result, especially in the second half,” he said. “In the first half, Man City were on top but couldn’t take their chances. In the second half, Middlesbrough deserved to win the game.
“When I first arrived [in England], they were a club who had big players. You had Boksic, Juninho, Boateng - many great players there. I believe that they will come back one day and they’ve always produced good young players as well.
“It’s good to see but when you look at the Championship, there are so many teams who were in the Premier League when I first arrived that you think have the potential to come up again. That shows you that it’s a massive battle to get back to the elite again.”
Middlesbrough may have some impressive statistics on their side ahead of Sunday’s game, but Arsenal can call on a few themselves.
The Gunners have won five of the seven matches between the two clubs in the FA Cup, while they have only lost once in their last 40 home ties in the competition. Wenger says that run has instilled a tangible sense of self-belief as they prepare for another test of their credentials.
"Let’s just focus on us, focus on our quality and produce the performance that we need to beat them"
“It gives us great confidence,” he said. “At our level, it’s always important to find a good compromise between confidence and the urgency level. That’s what is at stake for us on Sunday.
“You have to wonder if you have the quality to beat Middlesbrough. I say yes, so let’s just focus on us, focus on our quality and produce the performance that we need to beat them.”
A victory would take the Gunners another step closer to another Wembley date, but despite its proximity the manager says the team will not take their eyes off the ball.
“It’s not hard [to stay focused],” he said. “That our fans have that dream is normal and the fans of Middlesbrough and people everywhere have the same dream. Our job is to be realistic, pragmatic and turn up on the day with a good performance.”
Copyright 2021 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.