By Rob Kelly
“We could do better but I feel recently we have found good form at home. We look confident and focused on our game - that’s what we want to do against Stoke on Sunday.” - Arsene Wenger
In a season in which consistency has been hard to come by, an instant response to temporary setbacks has become increasingly important.
Take last month for example. Arsenal had won three matches in a row when they travelled to Britannia Stadium to face Stoke City. It may not have been the happiest of hunting grounds in the past, but there was optimism that the team could continue an encouraging run of form.
Ninety minutes later, those hopes were in tatters after a disastrous first half proved their undoing. It was a disappointing day for the Gunners, but their response spoke volumes for their character as successive 4-1 victories were followed by a point at Anfield and victories against QPR and West Ham United.
That progress came to a halt at St Mary’s on New Year’s Day, but once again Arsenal came good again to beat Hull City in Sunday’s FA Cup third-round tie. It is this inner drive and determination to make amends that convinces Arsene Wenger his side are ready to go to the next level.
“It’s always important to respond quickly and in a convincing way,” he told Arsenal Player. “We did that and we controlled the game well [against Hull] with the right response, so let’s move on from there.
"We’re in January and we know that every game has a big significance and we want our form to continue. We’ve had a solid run in the last seven or eight weeks and we want to move on now.”
There was further cause for optimism this week with the returns of Aaron Ramsey, Mathieu Flamini and Mesut Ozil to training, while Laurent Koscielny, Mathieu Debuchy and Olivier Giroud will also be available again after missing the Hull game.
While Danny Welbeck (thigh) is expected to miss out, Wenger is relieved to see his squad regaining some depth after a trying period which has forced him to field 12 different back fours this season.
“Ideally you want stability there but as you know we had Koscielny and Debuchy injured for long periods,” he said. “After that, we had Gibbs and Monreal injured as well, so there was a lot of movement in [the defence], which is not ideal.
"Some of our players have played 26 or 27 games, whereas some have played four or five. These players coming back can give us some impact for the coming months"
“I feel [we are getting stronger now]. We could benefit from that because these are players who are not overloaded with games. Some of our players have played 26 or 27 games, whereas some have played four or five. These players coming back can give us some impact for the coming months.”
Giroud’s return after a three-match ban gives Wenger food for thought up front. Alexis Sanchez flourished through the middle last weekend, but the manager says that the France international has the requisite qualities to trouble the more physically imposing of Arsenal’s opponents.
“Our game is a bit more orientated on crosses [when Giroud plays] and sometimes it’s a bit more direct as well because we know we can find him and he can win headers, especially from the goalkeeper,” Wenger said.
“Both options are very interesting and sometimes one is more suited to the game than the other, so Olivier gives us something different. He’s sometimes what makes us a bit more dangerous and gives us a different pattern of play.”
Stoke will arrive at Emirates Stadium in confident mood after embarking on a four-match unbeaten run which has seen them beat Everton and West Bromwich Albion and draw at home with Manchester United.
Mark Hughes’ side were particularly impressive in the latter match, and Wenger has been impressed with the work that the Welshman has done since taking over in May 2013. However, Hughes has never won at Arsenal as an opposition manager, and has in fact lost all seven visits with five different clubs.
|Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Arteta (calf), Welbeck (thigh), Diaby (calf), Gnabry (knee)Stoke City: Diouf (international duty), Odemwingie (knee), Muniesa (doubt - groin), Bojan (hamstring - doubt), Teixiera (knee)|
A further omen for the Gunners is that they have won 12 home games in a row against Stoke - although the memories of December’s defeat at the Britannia remains fresh in Wenger’s mind.
“It was a painful game because you prepare well and after 30 seconds you’re 1-0 down, battle back to 3-2 and then lose with 10 men,” he said. “They’re a very difficult team to play and they’ve shown that.
“They played at home against Manchester United and they should have won. If we had stayed with 11 players, we had an opportunity to come back for at least a draw. It has always been a difficult tie for us and it was a painful one, but every defeat is painful.
“They always have a different style over there. We are a bit more dictating of our own game [at home], so let’s do that again.”
Now that they are up and running in 2015, Arsenal’s task is not only to build momentum but also maintain it over a sustained period.
The challenge facing them from an in-form Stoke is clear but the manner of last Sunday’s victory against Hull has provided a welcome boost at an opportune moment. And with some key names returning to the fold, and a fine home record of one defeat in 27 Premier League games, optimism is high for the New Year.
“It’s a new start because the opportunities are there in the league,” Wenger said. “We are the FA Cup holders, and of course we want to win the trophy, and we are in the Champions League because we have an exciting and interesting draw that can give us opportunities as well. We are in three competitions.
“We could do better but I feel recently we have found good form at home. We look confident and focused on our game - that’s what we want to do against Stoke on Sunday.”
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