By Rob Kelly
“It’s always difficult to keep the focus until the end but I believe that top-level competitors have that in themselves because they fight the whole season to get where they are.” - Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
As Arsene Wenger sat down on General Election day last Thursday, he admitted with a smile that the life of a politician was one he could relate to.
The unrelenting glare of the 24-hour news cycle, the pressure to deliver tangible results, having to directly answer to your constituents - it is all in a day’s work for this most politically adept of managers.
And in a nation recently consumed by statistics, majorities and swing votes, the Frenchman can point to some pretty compelling figures of his own right now.
For Arsenal are in the midst of a run of 18 wins in 21 matches, have not conceded a first-half goal in 14 Premier League games and remain set fair for a first second-place finish in a decade.
But perhaps most pleasing for one of football’s great aesthetes was seeing his side reach 100 goals for the season with an outstanding performance at Hull City seven days ago.
“That shows that slowly the connections between the players have improved, that their confidence level is higher and that everybody can score goals,” Wenger told Arsenal Player.
“That’s always the expression of the side who has real team play. The versatility of the players and the goalscorers is important. Through the 90 minutes we showed high quality at Hull. We played the offensive game we love to play and really played as a team.
“Overall it was very convincing and you feel that the progress continues, that the team gets stronger game by game. It’s a very good feeling.”
For all the garlands heading Alexis Sanchez’s way of late, there was almost as much praise for Santi Cazorla after the win at KC Stadium.
The Spain international has been reborn in a deeper central role alongside Francis Coquelin and there were two passes at Hull - for Aaron Ramsey’s goal and then to Alexis - that took the breath away.
Wenger has overseen many positional changes during his Arsenal reign, but you get the sense that the rejuvenation of Cazorla is one he has particularly enjoyed.
"He transformed completely when I moved him central and it looks to me that centrally is where he is really at ease and brings a lot to the team."
“We lost Cesc Fabregas and Santi was one of those players who could bring us that technical quality,” he said. “His career at Arsenal is in two stages. The first was when I played him wide, he was like a midfielder playing wide and contributing a bit like Robert Pires did as a wide player.
“He transformed completely when I moved him central and it looks to me that centrally is where he is really at ease and brings a lot to the team. Why? Because he’s a team player, he works very hard and he also gives us that continuity, that fluidity.
“He can also hit a long ball - the long ball he hit for Ramsey for the second goal [at Hull] was with his left foot and it was absolutely delightful to watch.”
Another eye-catching cameo at the KC came from Jack Wilshere, in his first appearance for more than five months after recovering from an ankle injury. His effervescent display gives Wenger a further selection dilemma as he decides whether to keep the same side for the fifth successive game, or rotate.
“Jack had a convincing impact when he came on,” he said. “For a while Kieran Gibbs was not completely himself because he had a little groin problem, Jack was fighting very hard to come back, Theo was out for a year and fighting to come back, and all three are now at the level where they can compete. They give me another nice problem to have but we have all three ready to fight.”
However, the Arsenal manager will have to do without Mathieu Debuchy (hamstring), Danny Welbeck (knee) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (groin), while Ramsey (fibula) faces a late fitness test.
There are few clubs in the Premier League that have garnered as much goodwill as Swansea City since their arrival in the top flight four years ago.
Their commitment to stylish, passing football and their ability to absorb the blows of losing managers and star players while continuing to thrive has been a pleasure to see.
Managerial newcomer Garry Monk has done a fine job since taking over at Liberty Stadium last year, with one of his landmark results coming in their 2-1 win against the Gunners in November.
"Over the last four or five years Swansea have done extremely well and they deserve credit because they’ve made many big decisions"
Wenger is a confirmed admirer, but insists the Swans will be facing a very different Arsenal side this evening.
“First of all we were a bit careless in our defensive attitude [at Swansea],” he said. “Jefferson Montero gave us many problems on the left, Bafetimbi Gomis came on and scored a header for their winner.
“It was a game where we had the chances to score a second goal and didn’t finish it off. They had the energy and the resources to put us under pressure in the last 10 minutes, and we lost the game.
“We want to show that we are different now and we have that opportunity. We also want to show that we have learnt from that defeat.
“Garry Monk is a very young manager so [the job he has done is] absolutely amazing. That promises a bright future for a guy who has just started and to put Swansea at the level that they are now is absolutely outstanding.
“Over the last four or five years Swansea have done extremely well and they deserve credit because they’ve made many big decisions, which they have made correctly, and they have played very good football.”
For all of Swansea’s progress over the past four years, all Wenger is really concerned about is the tangible steps forward his own side has made.
Finishing second will never count as success to a natural-born competitor like the Frenchman, but it would underline his belief that he now has a squad to challenge on all fronts over the coming years.
Their fate is in their own hands. Win their next four games and they will have secured their highest finish since 2005, win a further match and they will have retained the FA Cup for the second time in the Wenger era.
It is a tantalising prospect that should see no let-up in motivation, even if there are tired legs and minds after nine months of non-stop action.
“It’s always difficult to keep the focus until the end but I believe that top-level competitors have that in themselves because they fight the whole season to get where we are,” said Wenger.
“Now you want to keep the focus to go as far as you can and you want to go out of the competition and think, ‘we have worked ourselves so hard and there is nothing left to give. We have given our best’. Therefore you need to keep your focus to achieve that.”
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.