It has been a strange month for Arsenal. A terrific performance against Chelsea was part of a very decent Christmas, and at the weekend West Ham were coolly and efficiently dispatched in the sort of match we have struggled in over recent seasons (in fact one we threw away points in last campaign).
But sandwiched in between were two of the worst performances in a long time – a flat display against a Leeds side who were unlucky not to dump us out of the FA Cup, and an insipid display against Ipswich, struggling badly in the Championship, which got exactly what it deserved – a defeat.
For all the doom and gloom surrounding those results, however, they will be quickly forgotten if we triumph at Elland Road tomorrow night and then put Ipswich to the sword in the second leg. In a way, the worst displays of the season could be well timed – it doesn’t matter how you get through the cup as long as you get through, whereas the same off night in the league costs you points that haunt you until May.
That would be an easy and reassuring argument to make if we hadn’t seen the same complacent Arsenal in league matches this season. It is noticeable that we’ve played really well in games we knew would be tough – Chelsea, Man City (ignore that we didn’t win, we created a host of chances against a brilliant defence and were repelled by an excellent keeper and bad luck) and even the first half of the Spurs game. Only at Old Trafford did we freeze.
When we’ve failed, it has been down to complacency, taking the opposition too lightly and getting a rude awakening. WBA and Newcastle came to the Emirates and took advantage, while Spurs only had to play for a a half after we assumed the match was dead and eased off. Braga away was another limp display, perhaps because we had written them off after hammering them earlier in the group.
While the clinical destruction of West Ham was great to see, it makes those games even more frustrating – if we approach games correctly, we truly are a force to be reckoned with. But maintaining that seems to be a problem for these players. We saw a glimpse of that last season – we started the season harrying every opposition, and it paid off handsomely. But by November, that had stopped and our season started to fade. At the time, we put it down to injuries, that perhaps you cannot maintain that intensity when you don’t have fit players to rotate, but I wonder if it really is that simple.
For the first season in a long time, we are not crippled by injuries. Vermaelen is a big loss, but we can now rotate and still field an exceptionally strong side. The trouble is that when we do, some of those players don’t play with the same drive, which strangles our performance and invites criticism on the manager for making those alterations.
And frankly, I think that is nonsense. Wenger copped a load of criticism for changing his side for Wigan over the Christmas period, and again in the cups, because the results didn’t follow. But look again at the teams fielded on those days, and it is hard to argue that they weren’t strong enough to triumph in those games. At some point some of the players need to ask themselves if they want a regular berth in the team – you would hope that the competition for places would inspire the squad players to run their socks off when given a chance, yet it seems the first XI scrap harder than they do, a fact I still can’t understand.
It could yet fall into place. The terrible cup performances can be rectified – wins in three matches against Championship opposition would see us in the Carling Cup final and last sixteen of the FA Cup, and there are no excuses for not managing that. Meanwhile, we’re saving our best performances for the league, where we have a genuine chance. It tells you everything you need to know about the strength of the Premiership that United are still unbeaten – apart from the Blackburn demolition, when have they played well? They can’t win away, Chelsea can barely win, and the title is there for the taking.
But to grab it, we have to find consistency. And that means when we put a run of three wins together, we don’t think we’ve made it and take the next game lightly, because we’ll get punished if we do.
Normally, you look at the fixture list and pick out the big matches against the top clubs as the crucial encounters. But for me, the next month is critical. We have a host of very winnable matches – it is the sort of month we should use to put a run together, but it is also full of opposition waiting to take advantage of us not taking them seriously.
Strangely, I’m less concerned about the big games – we’ll be up for United at home, and when we’re hungry we’re exceptionally dangerous. The worry is what happens when we’re not.