By Rob Kelly
“[Beating Manchester City] raises the belief and the confidence of the team but it also questions your ability to repeat that kind of performance, and to keep that tenacity in your concentration. That’s what will be questioned at Brighton.” - Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
Call it what you will - a new dawn, a lightbulb moment, a tactical masterclass - but last Sunday’s sacking of the Etihad was certainly a deeply satisfactory result for all those connected with Arsenal.
In a bravura display that demonstrated both their silk and steel, the Gunners delivered a performance of such poise and precision that it had pundits queuing up to lavish them with praise.
Santi Cazorla had warned in the build-up that his side would have to be “perfect” to beat Manchester City. The little Spaniard was as good as his word, once more assuming his role as the conductor of Arsenal’s orchestra as they claimed three massive points.
But it was not just the Iberian who deserves such fulsome praise. To a man, Arsene Wenger’s side were so good, so composed, so mature that it seemed nigh on impossible not to get swept up in the euphoria. But for a manager of such exacting standards, there will always be better to strive for.
“I don’t think it was perfect,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. “On the spirit front and in the attitude and solidarity, it was a perfect performance. On the technical front we have room for improvement and we want to focus on that.
“But it was a very satisfactory performance because we were questioned about our ability to win big games away from home, especially after last year’s experiences. Also the way we controlled the game convinced people and gave some credit to our performance.”
The challenge now is to deliver such a display on a consistent basis - and that starts this Sunday against Brighton.
Having played so well in Manchester, the temptation must be to send out the same team in a bid to keep the wheels turning in the right direction. But with the likes of Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil returning to first-team action, Wenger has the luxury of being able to rotate his squad.
"There’s big competition at the moment for places in the team, and some players will have an opportunity to show that they are ready to play again"
He has already indicated that the latter is likely to start on the south coast, although there will be no Danny Welbeck (thigh), while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (pelvis) and Hector Bellerin (ankle) face late tests.
“As you saw on Sunday, I had a very strong bench,” Wenger said. “Many of these players will play, but it will absolutely be the first-team squad, a top-level squad. There’s big competition at the moment for places in the team, and some players will have an opportunity to show that they are ready to play again.”
One player who has certainly made the most of his opportunities of late is Francis Coquelin. The 23 year old was on loan at Charlton Athletic in the Championship a little over a month ago - now he is being lauded far and wide for his role in the defeat of the Premier League champions.
“Francis is contributing to the team well at the moment and he has shown that he has matured through difficulties,” Wenger said. “I kept patience with him because I saw his talent and also because I give a huge importance to people who have been educated at the club and who have been brought up together because they know what the club means.
“When you have six or seven players in the squad who think this is the club they want to be at, of course this gives us strength and brings stability to the team.”
Sunday’s game will be Arsenal’s first away game in the FA Cup since their last visit to Brighton, almost exactly two years ago to the day. On that occasion, a pulsating fourth-round tie was settled by a late Walcott goal, but since then much has changed.
The Seagulls have been through three managers in that time, although they will confident of gaining some stability following the appointment of Chris Hughton. The former Newcastle United and Norwich City boss has a reputation for creating highly disciplined, tough-to-beat teams, and Wenger expects nothing less from Brighton this weekend.
“Chris has always been well organised,” he said. “I’ve known him since he was assistant manager at Tottenham. After that, he took over at Birmingham and Norwich, and now he has found a club where I think he can give them an impulse to be on the way up again.
“At the time [two years ago], Brighton looked to me like a club that would come into the Premier League, because they were fighting for promotion. After they went out of the FA Cup, they faded a bit in the Championship and couldn’t make it. Since then, instead of going a step up, they have been stopped in their progression. But now in their recent results they look again to be positive.”
With confidence sky-high and a cup to defend, the Gunners will not be lacking in motivation this weekend.
But as Wenger would acknowledge, while beating Manchester City is a welcome fillip, it will mean nothing if the team do not build on the foundations they have laid for themselves.
That starts on Sunday. Arsenal have faced Brighton four times in the FA Cup and won each time, but any let-up in focus and desire is sure to be pounced on by hosts desperate to cause an upset.
It is not something Wenger will countenance. Having seen his team finally start to deliver on their vast potential, he wants them to move to the next level.
“[Beating Man City] raises the belief and the confidence of the team but it also questions your ability to repeat that kind of performance, and to keep that consistent tenacity in your concentration,” he said.
“That’s what will be questioned on Sunday at Brighton. Let’s show that we can produce exactly the same level of focus and the same dynamic in the team.”
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