Ask any pundit about Arsenal’s form since the turn of the year and they will pause for effect before saying erratic, mixed, up and down, inconsistent or any similar description. The contrast between the win over Barcelona and the draw with Leyton Orient has been described in many places as ‘the sublime and the ridiculous’, which aside from being highly patronising of Orient, is grossly misleading.
It is a classic example of how you can slant the same statistics two ways. Here’s the first, which I like to call the Alan Hansen analysis:
1) In less than two months since the turn of the year, we’ve required a last minute equaliser to avoid a home defeat to Leeds, lost to Ipswich and drawn at Orient. In all, we’ve played teams outside the Premiership six times, and kept a clean sheet only once. Add to that the collapse from 4-0 up to 4-4 at Newcastle and you have a problem.
And now here’s the second:
2) Our league record in 2011 is five wins, two draws and no defeats, and aside from the Newcastle game, those seven games saw only one goal conceded – Saha’s offside effort for Everton. In all, we are undefeated in the league since Old Trafford in mid-December. Running alongside that, we’ve reached the Carling Cup final, progressed in the FA Cup and now face a home replay with Orient for a place in the quarter-finals. Oh, and we take a lead to the Nou Camp after triumphing in one of the greatest matches I’ve ever seen.
In case you haven’t guessed, I’m coming down on the side of the second analysis, and it continues to baffle me that Wenger is so heavily criticised for his rotation policy. Do people seriously wish we had played full strength sides against Leeds and Ipswich in the space of four days, before a trip to Upton Park? Wenger changed things up, we struggled in the cups (but progressed, and that we struggled was due to the reserves underperforming, not the selection), but hammered West Ham. Similarly, we sneaked past Huddersfield 48 hours before a tough game with Everton, which was duly won.
Wenger’s policy against the lower league sides has been simple – field the weakest side he could get away with, while still progressing. Despite what you may hear about it being disrespect for the competitions, it is anything but – it only turns into that if the competition becomes a sacrifice. I find it ironic that Wenger is seen as discrediting the Carling Cup in particular, when he has presided over a club that consistently progresses to the latter stages. It is why, although I chuckled at United’s struggles against Crawley, I have to admit Fergie got exactly what he wanted out of it – United progressed, he rested his stars, and learned plenty about the remainder of his squad. It is the same result that Wenger has had over and over.
Ask yourself this – out of this week’s pair of games, would you have preferred Leyton Orient to score a last minute equaliser, or Stoke?
Since the turn of the year, from a competition point of view, we have barely put a foot wrong. Progression in all the cups, unbeaten in the league, and only the Newcastle game to point fingers at, which was extraordinary but well responded to by a team supposedly lacking in mental strength.
The sign of a good team is apparently the ability to win when it counts. When it has counted, we’ve won the vast majority – as a result, while we play a cup final and visit the Nou Camp, we also have an eye on United’s tricky trips to Stamford Bridge and Anfield because our title tilt is very much on.
It is March in a few days, and we’re not only in four competitions, we’re in a good position in all of them. You don’t get that by being erratic or inconsistent.