It feels like the calm between the storms. In the midst of a difficult run of fixtures, we all of a sudden find ourselves with a seven day gap between games. It will be the last such break for a while – next Wednesday we welcome Liverpool to the Grove, with the Champions League campaign restarting in Porto the following week. So enjoy the respite while you can.
Of course, it also means there is more time to reflect – some choose to look back in more detail at the United game, some instead ‘look forward’ to Chelsea. Many take a gloomy view whichever they go for.
It is remarkable how quickly we’ve been written off – it was only a couple of weeks ago that we leapt to the top of the league, but one extremely poor performance and we’re yesterday’s news. In a way, that might suit us – no-one expects us to get a result at Chelsea on Sunday, despite how ineffective they looked at Hull on Tuesday. Odds against an Arsenal win are longer than any I can remember since, well, last season’s trip to Stamford Bridge. Which, if I remember correctly, we won.
Much has been said about our defence, and about Almunia and Denilson, since Sunday’s hiccup, but it shouldn’t mask what continues to be a serious challenge for the title. Last season, United themselves had a dreadful record against the rest of the Big Four, but still claimed the title due to their ability to overrun the bottom half of the league. They were lauded for it.
It is easily missed, but we are going about our campaign the same way. Heavy defeats to United and Chelsea have been countered by a superb record against the lesser teams, the sort that used to derail our seasons by ‘parking the bus’ and going away with valuable points.
It is no coincidence that as soon as our midfielders became a major goal threat, we’ve been able to break down the most stubborn of opponents. When Adebayor was leading the line, and Henry before him, we relied so heavily on their goals that the lack of support from midfield mattered little. The likes of Hleb, Gilberto, Flamini and even Reyes were never prolific goalscorers, and even Cesc took a few years to find his shooting boots. Back then, opponents could focus on a couple of players, a tactic that often rendered us impotent and frustrated.
That is no longer the case. If you were to stop two players from scoring, another six would be queuing up to add to their tallies, even surging up from centre back to smash one in from distance. It is nigh on impossible to defend against, and is the reason our scoring feats are going down in the record books. It is also why we’ve been able to defy predictions that Van Persie’s injury would end our season.
The important point is this – everyone concedes goals to us, and while no-one can deny our defensive weaknesses, there are only a handful of teams capable of a) keeping us down to a single goal or less and b) being clinical enough up front to take their own chances.
Certainly, United and Chelsea fall into that bracket. But I’d take losses to both if exchanged with ten victories over lesser teams. While Chelsea and United suffer at Wigan and Burnley, we’ll keep accumulating the points that keep us in contention.
The Premiership campaign is not a knockout trophy that takes you out of the running after one defeat. It is a marathon, where you gain no more for beating Liverpool than you do for overcoming Wolves. In that way, we might be a lot better equipped to triumph than you think.