By Rob Kelly
“It’s a tight ground with a bit of a Highbury atmosphere, with people very close to the pitch and it will certainly be a very committed game. Let’s prepare mentally to be confronted with that commitment and respond well to it.” - Arsene Wenger
SETTING THE SCENE
Arsene Wenger seemed markedly more serene this week as he sat down at London Colney to preview Wednesday night’s trip to Loftus Road.
Having seen his side respond positively to their Monaco misery with a much-improved display against Everton, perceptions are changing once again.
Such are the shifting sands of the Premier League that, having moved to within four points of second-placed Manchester City, the manager fielded questions on whether Arsenal could catch the champions.
Talk of a crisis was conspicuous by its absence, indeed Wenger was even asked if his side could still win the title. It must be grating to deal with these sudden shifts in narrative, yet he handles it all with customary good grace.
The Frenchman, after all, has been there and seen it all before. And coming off the back of a solid win against an Everton side that had caused problems in the past, there was plenty to encourage him ahead of the “final sprint” to the finish line.
“I would say the solidarity we had [was most pleasing], and the mental response we showed after the defeat to Monaco,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. “It is always very important to see how a team responds to a disappointment and on that front you could see that everyone was highly focused to put good teamwork in.
“In the end it is vital to come back straight away to a win. On the other hand it is a continuation of our victory against Crystal Palace and we are on a good run in the Premier League, so it was three very welcome points.”
Olivier Giroud’s redemption and Tomas Rosicky’s continued late-season renaissance were Sunday’s main talking points, but there was another point of interest to note.
Arsenal’s opening goal, Giroud sweeping home a Mesut Ozil corner, was their 16th set-piece strike of the Premier League season, putting them second behind only Crystal Palace.
"He has great resilience and a great determination and the balance of the team sometimes depends on one player, and in that area he could be the player"
“Honestly, the stats surprise even me because we didn’t expect to score as many goals on set-pieces,” Wenger said. “It is 80 per cent down to the delivery and the quality of the runs in the box. The confidence is certainly [important] and we have a presence with Olivier Giroud that is intimidating.”
The boss has a pleasant selection dilemma in midfield ahead of tonight’s trip to west London, with Aaron Ramsey available once more, Rosicky back among the goals and Francis Coquelin fit despite a broken nose sustained against Everton.
“Francis is important because he gives us balance in the team,” he said. “We are a very offensive team and he does a defensive job. He has great resilience and a great determination and the balance of the team sometimes depends on one player, and in that area he could be the player.
“It’s good to have Aaron back too, but [whether] it is too early or not I don’t know. He had a few muscular injuries, so I will [have to] see who I rest and who I change, but it’s good to have his energy back in the team.”
It has been a tough first season back in the top flight for Queens Park Rangers, and there has been further upheaval recently with Harry Redknapp replaced by Chris Ramsey.
Striker Charlie Austin has been one of the success stories of the campaign but QPR's Achilles heel has been at the back, where they have conceded 45 times – the joint most in the division.
"It’s a tight ground with a bit of a Highbury atmosphere, with people very close to the pitch and it will certainly be a very committed game"
But while their away form (12 defeats in 13 games) has played a big part in their descent into the relegation zone, QPR are a very different prospect at Loftus Road. It can be an intimidating atmosphere, and the Gunners have only won once in their last six visits to this old-school ground.
“They have done well at home,” Wenger said. “If you look at their results there’s a big difference between home and away results. But we have recently done well away from home as well, and that’s why it will be a very important game.
“It is a big test and a welcome test as well because you know what you’ll get [at Loftus Road]. It’s a tight ground with a bit of a Highbury atmosphere, with people very close to the pitch and it will certainly be a very committed game. Let’s prepare mentally to be confronted with that kind of commitment and respond well to it.”
In Tuesday morning’s press conference, Wenger noted that a cluster of clubs are now “accelerating for the final sprint” to the season.
The race for a top-four place could barely be tighter, with three points separating third from sixth, so experience and momentum will be key in the final flourishes to the campaign.
As such, the psychological impact of Arsenal reclaiming third spot on Sunday – having seen both Manchester United and Liverpool win before them – should not be underestimated. With confidence fragile after their midweek Champions League disappointment, the Gunners delivered the right response.
Now their task is to repeat the trick and consolidate their position.
“It is important how you respond when results go against you,” Wenger said. “For us it is more comfortable when we go back in front of [our rivals] straight away. This is a period where every point is vital, so that is why that win was important.
“It’s important that we have continuity in our results. Behind us [teams are] chasing, in front of us is not far so it’s just down to the quality of our results.”
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.