Fixture Advantages Are Fine In Theory But…
Ever seeking to claim an advantage, Arsene noted that the fixture list gives Arsenal a headstart of the rest of the title challengers by sending the squad to their rivals before Christmas. For this theory to work, Arsenal has to win their home games, something which has eluded them over the past two seasons. Indeed, the practicalities of such a theory will be severely tested over Christmas and January as Chelsea and Manchester City visit The Emirates shortly after the visit to Old Trafford.
It is the intervening time which is more crucial; titles are not won and lost in the isolation of top four clashes but these matches go a long way to securing points advantages or closing gaps. Winning fixtures against the teams which occupy seventh to bottom are equally important. This month, November, highlights that. It is not inconceivable that Arsenal will take fifteen out of the fifteen points available; the trip to Everton and Aston Villa are tricky whilst the derby against Tottenham is not a forgone conclusion although their failure to take any victory in their last sixty visits to the Champions League qualifiers is a considerable mental obstacle for them to overcome.
This season, more than ever, it seems that the home games are going to be key. Yet each of the sides in the top six is capable of winning at the grounds of their closest rivals. The home points simply cannot be taken for granted. Last season showed that the close proximity of big matches is not necessarily advantageous, three points from the home win over Liverpool the only return from three consecutive matches against ‘big four’ clubs.
The win over West Ham has emphasised some of Wenger’s optimism as well as providing grounds for that. Much talk of the collective stamina, the desire to win in such fixtures has been, not empty, but on dubious ground before now. It was a match which could quite easily have been drawn in the past – or dare one whisper it, lost – but concentration was kept, momentum built and the clearest chance in the latter stages buried.
Alex Song has travelled a long way in his Arsenal career, the unfair opprobrium heaped onto his shoulders following a dismal display at Craven Cottage seems so long ago. That night the team were abysmal and Song had flirted with the first team, expected to slot into a team which was makeshift, a team which played without soul, vibrancy or belief. He took the flak but to immense credit, has fought back, producing one of the best performances of the season – perhaps his career – at the weekend. It has been indicative of how he has played that he is now considered a key member of the starting XI, no longer subjected to the cries for a new defensive midfielder. Wenger puts it down to improved stamina, making him more mobile. In days gone by, the manager intimated that Song was not the best trainer. The player believes he is more mature; the two must be intertwined.
However, the midfielders he is playing alongside have played an equally important part in this new-found freedom. Wilshere has shown he is not afraid to put his foot in to win the ball which is something that has not necessarily been evident in the past from the creative members of the side. More than this though is that I believe the team is working harder to close the opposition down. Is this as a result of being more comfortable with the formation? More confident in the abilities of their colleagues? Or simply that they know hard work is required to win the title on a consistent basis; that they cannot simply turn up and take the points, the plaudits served on their platters are empty without medals.
Whatever the reason, consistency is the key. This month has been a traditional pothole to the season. With the upcoming fixtures, one every three days on average if you include internationals, fitness is going to be crucial. Robin van Persie is apparently eyeing a return against Tottenham which would leave only Thomas Vermaelen absent, provided everyone else remains fit. The competition for places will need everyone to be on top of their game. If that happens, then a good points return can be obtained. And that increases pressure on those around them, no bad thing indeed.