The Premier League goes into hibernation for just over a week, allowing the FA Cup to reclaim some of its former glory. Or try to at least. Money has airbrushed the past from football’s history and a competition which relies on the past as a basis for its place in our affections in always on the back foot.
So what of the Premier League campaign so far? Being top is always an enjoyable moment, no matter how fleeting the stay may be. It gives hope for supporters to feed off, that this might be the year. Why not? In the time since the title last landed in north London, Arsenal head the table with the lowest points total after twenty games. In most of the intervening seasons, the top two – on occasion the top three – exceeded the 42 points accumulated so far.
It feels like the Premier League is more condensed this season because the top is within touching distance of more teams. Those below the tradtional ‘big four’ are getting better, the result of more financial power. The ‘big four’ are not as strong as before, with no team(s) dominating as previously. They are all lacking consistency.
It’s mashed together into a season which is impossible to predict. We assume one of them will at some point click into gear. If Arsenal are to be that team, it will be done the hard way with the next league matches being away at Liverpool and Stoke, followed by Chelsea at home. Traditionally tough games for us, no matter what their respective form might currently be.
Over the weekend, commentators pointed to late winners by both Mancunian clubs as evidence the season’s tide was turning in their favour. John Terry meanwhile ‘roared’ as tunelessly as the terrace chant of the same words, that their win at Palace yesterday was a sign that “Chelsea are back”. Everyone’s back in the title hunt or looking for a top four place.
Arsène meanwhile is there to be shot at. It used to be that the first weekend of the new year found the Sundays rammed with astrologers telling us what lay ahead for the coming twelve months. Arsène’s predictions on these matters have been as accurate in the past so I won’t get excited about reports of £40m here or £20m there until they happen.
Alexis is due to return against Sunderland, the first of many due back in the next couple of months. In the meantime, Wenger is resting his players that ‘little bit’ more. He has no choice but to carefully manage their fitness, particularly in the central midfield area. Talk that this weekend’s team against Sunderland will be vastly changed is premature; we don’t have the personnel to do so.
It’s a balancing act for Arsène. He knows from painful experience that over-rotating a side in the cup ends badly. It’s one of the reasons we endured a decade without silverware but he has a balance to maintain. This is the second time in three seasons that we’ve gone into the New Year at the top of the table. This time the squad is wafer thin for a while longer and cannot, on paper, sustain a challenge of all fronts.
Does he sacrifice the cup, the chance of three consecutive wins, for a title bid? The season could be over by the end of this month if it all goes wrong. It could be anyway, it’s a matter of judging how much of a risk he is willing to take.
And before you ask, it could go right as well, consolidating Arsenal’s position as leader of the pack. Such has been the way that the season has unfolded, I wouldn’t like to predict the outcome. Not even for the next four matches.
Arsène naturally has faith in his squad. They have “charisma” and some of them, a wealth of experience at winning trophies for previous clubs and country. Olivier Giroud thought it likely that his and other title-winning members of the squad will pass this on to the younger members of the squad who are yet to taste that glory.
It isn’t just them. Previous years, particularly 2008, saw the title falter because the experience players let down the youngsters by not keeping themselves or others disciplined. A winless run against mediocre opposition followed and a five-point gap turn to a six-point deficit within six weeks. Experience was over-rated.
This time, we’ll get it right is the mantra. Wenger believes that the “vibes” are there for a title challenge. Geeing them up, he thought that the patience in Saturday’s win was a sign of the squad’s maturity. Fair point but that it was possible was down to Petr Cech.
Arsenal’s biggest enemy may well be themselves and a lack of discipline in their play. Most of Newcastle’s opportunities came from our mistakes – not one individual but a series of them contributed. Each time they broke forward, they found too much space too readily as player pushed forward seeking the breakthrough goal.
At times, there were flashbacks to Song supporting the attack when his primary function was to protect the defence. Gaps were evident and had it not been for the goalkeeper and the visitors lack of confidence in front of goal, Arsenal would have lost.
But we survived and won the game ‘ugly’. As champions do. They survive the tests and capitalise when the moments arise. There’s no reason why Arsenal can’t win the league this season. More can be done to help the squad through difficult moments and that needs the manager to use his experiences over recent seasons to support the players. Rest is good; so are short-term or permanent solutions.
It will be an interesting month ahead.