By Rob Kelly
“You want to feel that we have done our job well and that we have finished on a strong performance. We want to send our fans home happy on the last game of the season.” - Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
It is something of novelty - albeit a very welcome one - for those of an Arsenal persuasion to be heading into the final game of the season in a relatively relaxed frame of mind.
Previous campaigns have seen the pressure valve ratcheted up as the Gunners travelled to the likes of St James’ Park and The Hawthorns needing three points to secure their top-four place. That they have always achieved it is to their credit, but the racing hearts and shredded nerves live long in the memory.
This year’s climax to the Premier League season will be somewhat less stressful. Having done almost all of the hard work over the previous 37 games, the only issue hanging over Arsene Wenger’s side is whether they will finish third - thus sealing automatic entry to next season’s Champions League - or fourth.
In reality, barring a seven-goal swing third place is theirs. But the Arsenal manager is keen to see an improvement in front of goal on Sunday, after three scoreless matches in a row at Emirates Stadium.
“We need to be faithful to the football we want to play but play the football we want to play better,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. “That means more speed in our passing and more quality in our finishing.
“I believe as well that it’s linked with the cycles you go through. There are moments in the season where every shot on goal goes in and there are moments in the season where you create many chances and you don’t score.
“Let’s just focus on the quality of our game. The finishing will be the natural consequence of the quality of our game. We do a lot of things right and we have just to focus on doing what we do better.”
After a typically intense Premier League season that will have sapped the legs and minds of even the most hardy of players, the key question facing the boss is one of rotation.
However, he finds himself in a form of footballing purgatory. Having already spoken of the obvious benefits of entering the FA Cup on the back of a morale-boosting victory, he must also weigh up the need to hold back some of his squad so they are fresh for their Wembley date. It is a difficult balancing act.
"At the Emirates we feel strong so it’s important to continue to feel that strength and important that we come back"
“The temptation is to rest the players who need a rest,” he said. “There are a few in there. I have not decided completely yet but of course my target is to finish the season with a win at home.
“At the Emirates we feel strong so it’s important to continue to feel that strength and important that we come back. We’ve now had [three home games without scoring] but we want to finish the season on a high in the Premier League and win the game.”
Wenger is rightly pleased with the progress his side have made this season, and nowhere has this been illustrated more than at the back. Compared to the previous campaign, the Gunners have made an average of six interceptions more per game, plus an extra tackle, highlighting their new-found aggression.
“We are much better in our defensive stability and resilience,” he said. “As a unit we defend quicker and better, which is something we want to continue.
“I feel that the team are now convinced and have belief in their strengths. They are convinced that if we play the way we want to play well, we have a good chance of fighting for the Premier League.”
Defensive resilience is a cornerstone of Tony Pulis’ coaching philosophy. The former Stoke and Crystal Palace manager may never have beaten Arsene Wenger at Emirates Stadium, but his sides are always well-organised, disciplined and awkward opponents.
"West Brom are a resilient team and always a difficult team to play"
West Brom have conceded an average of more than two goals a game against Arsenal in the Premier League era, but Wenger expects a much sterner test this weekend. Indeed, since Pulis took over the Baggies have kept 10 clean sheets in 17 Premier League games.
“Tony Pulis has organised them so they can do it,” the manager said. “Even against Chelsea on Monday night they won 3-0 so they have been very efficient offensively and defensively. They are a resilient team and always a difficult team to play.”
As Wenger says, it not only at the back and at set-pieces that West Brom will pose a threat. In Saido Berahino, they have the third highest English goalscorer of the season on 14 goals, and his brace in their surprise victory against Chelsea was a clear warning to the Gunners' backline.
“He is a big threat because he has pace and makes intelligent runs. He’s a good finisher now,” Wenger said. “I would say the first goal he scored against Chelsea was spontaneous, quick finishing. He’s an intelligent player as well and he is promised to have a great future. We will have to keep him quiet.”
At the end of another exhausting but encouraging campaign, there is much for Wenger to look back on with pride.
His side have addressed last season’s issues in the biggest games, gaining landmark results on the road at Manchester City and Manchester United, while blowing Liverpool away at the Emirates.
He has added a genuine superstar in Alexis Sanchez, got the best out of the likes of Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud and developed some exciting young talent that should keep the club in clover for years.
Arsenal are also poised for their first third-placed finish since 2012, and could defend the FA Cup they so joyfully won last year. It has been a long, arduous season of highs and lows, but Wenger is determined to go out with a bang - both this weekend and next.
“To summarise the season, it was a slow start, a good recovery and a great finish,” he said. “Overall we made progress because we have the potential to dictate games and we are now in a strong position going into next season.
“You want to go out of the season on a high and not feel miserable after a game. You want to feel that we have done our job well and that we have finished on a strong performance. We want to send our fans home happy on the last game of the season.
“We were many times under pressure [on the final day] when we absolutely had to win the game. We always delivered. This time we want to continue our tradition and do it again.”
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.