Arsenal return to Premier League action when they travel to Sunderland on Saturday - and Chris Harris has previewed the match.
‘The solution has to be found internally with the 11 players that are on the pitch.’ - Arsene Wenger
The title race just gets tighter.
This time last week the top seven were separated by five points. Now it’s even more crowded, with just two points between Manchester City in first and Tottenham in fifth.
Arsene Wenger often says that seasonal trends reveal themselves after 10 games and, as we approach double figures for this top-flight campaign, we’re getting a massive hint that the Premier League could go down to the wire.
|Arsenal: Lucas (ankle), Xhaka (suspended), Cazorla (heel - doubt), Walcott (hamstring - doubt), Monreal (muscle - doubt), Akpom (back), Mertesacker, Welbeck (both knee)Sunderland: Denayer (groin), Kirchhoff (hamstring), Cattermole (back), Januzaj (ankle), Borini (groin), Mannone (elbow), Larsson (knee)
If it stays close, defensive solidity could make the difference, so it’s reassuring that we’ve kept seven clean sheets in eight games.
“I feel we have evolved defensively,” Arsene Wenger told Arsenal Player. “I feel that everybody knows what he has to do. The players that have come in, like Mustafi, have quickly integrated our system, and they have improved the communication as well.
“I feel that we have a good solidarity, good organisation and maybe as well the fact that we play an offensive game and spend a lot of time away from our box.
“I must say as well, in the last week you’ve witnessed that our goalkeepers kept us safe when we were under threat. At a team like Arsenal, you have two or three moments where the goalkeeper has to be absolutely sure and keep the team safe.”
Zeros on the other side of the scoreline aren’t so welcome. The absence of Santi Cazorla was felt during our goalless draw against Middlesbrough, and Wenger has challenged his team-mates to bridge the creative gap.
“One of the problems is when you don’t win, the players who do not play are of course missed,” he said. “It came out after the game that we missed Giroud, we missed Cazorla. Yes of course, they are top players and I do not want to take anything away from them.
“But we had as well draws with Santi, with Giroud, so we don’t have to look for excuses. We still have to ask ourselves if we are good enough to win these kind of games, and I say yes. The solution has to be found internally with the 11 players that are on the pitch.
“We can make more of our set-pieces, not rush our game, not play a game contrary to our strong points. [Against Middlesbrough] we played a few long balls or crosses that we were not equipped to deal with, instead of keeping our patience.”
ONE TO WATCH
Olivier Giroud is more than just a big man in the box but he does give us variety if the manager needs to tweak his tactics against stubborn opponents.
The France striker has five goals in six games against Sunderland but the emergence of Alexis in a central role means Giroud is fighting harder than ever to win a first-team spot. As the boss points out, his compatriot is no stranger to challenges.
“It’s a big challenge for him but Olivier is a strong player with a strong mentality, who likes a fight,” he said. “On the other hand, now we have Lucas out for six to eight weeks so we have enough games for everybody to compete and to play.
“We have so many games that people ask you always ‘Why do you not buy more players?’ when they are not here, but how do you keep them happy? Competition is part of our job. Competing is internal and external and Olivier has the strength to do that.”
Giroud also has freshness, a commodity that can be in short supply as the season unfolds and the games take their toll. Both Giroud and Aaron Ramsey are effectively starting late, so they should be in good shape at the business end of the campaign.
“For us that’s a big bonus because the first signs of players who have played all the games need a little bit of a breather come in now,” said Wenger. “To have that quality coming in is absolutely fortunate.”
Sunderland are bottom of the Premier League but, as at the top, there is barely any daylight between the Wearsiders and their closest rivals.
“It is very difficult because, as much as it is tight at the top, it is as tight at the bottom,” said Wenger. “[The gap] is not massive, it’s a one game difference.
|Sunderland have won just one of their last 25 Premier League matches against Arsenal, a 1-0 win for Steve Bruce’s side in November 2009 (D9 L15)David Moyes has lost 14 Premier League games against Arsene Wenger – the only manager he’s lost to as often is Sir Alex Ferguson Olivier Giroud has scored five times and assisted two goals in his last six Premier games against Sunderland in all competitions
“Sunderland had injury problems as well but I think they have used [games against us] to have a very strong second part of the season. Many people predicted them to go down but they always revitalise and finish the season in a very strong way.”
The boss is used to priming his team for opponents who adopt a safety-first approach, and he’s expecting Saturday’s game to follow a familiar pattern.
“Honestly, my natural tendency would say they sit deep and get us on the break,” said the manager. “But at Southampton on Wednesday night they played quite high, so certainly David Moyes has tried a different solution.
“We will wait until Saturday at 12.30 to know [for sure].”
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