Janus, the Roman god of doorways, beginnings and endings lends his name to the month of January. Arsenal’s tough schedule this month means that they arrive at the juncture between also-rans and title contenders and, much like Janus, find themselves facing backwards as much as they are forwards.
The 3-0 defeat to Chelsea at the Emirates was a humbling experience for the Arsenal players. With the return fixture looming this weekend, the north London side could be forgiven for reflecting upon this as much as they are preparing for the encounter. American motivational speaker Zig Ziglar stated that “If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost” and Arsenal will hope that they have learned from their disappointment. The unbeaten run prompted by the loss gave some indication that Arsene Wenger’s young charges had learned from the experience and put this to devastating use, developing a ruthless streak as they hauled themselves back into the title race. However, the defeat to Manchester United, and more particularly the manner in which they succumbed, has cast doubts over this evolution.
During the transfer window all eyes have been looking forward to the prospective strengthening of the attack. Wenger has acknowledged that he did try to reinforce this area to no avail, but instead looked to the back as he re-signed Sol Campbell. After the unsuccessful pursuit of Chris Smalling, Wenger has turned his attention to Montenegrin defender Stefan Savic. Savic appears to have been training with the club and attended Arsenal’s match on Sunday as a spectator as he is in England to finalise a pre-contract agreement. As this signing indicates, Arsenal’s free-scoring attack has attracted plaudits but the defence needs examining. Some of the defensive frailties so clinically exposed in last November’s match against Chelsea have resurfaced in recent weeks. Vulnerability in the wide areas and a lack of concentration having just conceded were key features of last Sunday’s defeat, just as they were the last time they faced the Blues. After Armand Traore failed to impress at left-back, Gael Clichy was expected to return to shore up the left flank, but has struggled since his return. In fairness to the player he will need time to regain his match sharpness and has possibly been drafted in too soon in light of Traore’s displays and the importance of the month’s fixtures. Gunners fans will hope that this apparent sluggishness – of mind rather than feet – is a facet of his game that will disappear with an extended run of games, rather than being a now permanent feature.
Some might argue that the lack of an ‘out-ball’ for the defence – a player to hold up the ball and allow the back-line to organise and step out – is exacerbating any defensive frailties. Certainly at times during last Sunday’s defeat, United were able to camp on the edge of Arsenal’s 18-yard box before spreading the ball wide to attack the goal. The flanks appear to be the key battleground again for the forthcoming encounter. Arsenal’s lack of width in an attacking sense must be addressed, as rival teams have realised that funnelling the attacks into two banks of defending players is usually enough to stifle the Gunners. Similarly, former Gunner Ashley Cole caused havoc in the wide areas and must be stopped if Arsenal are to put a dent in both Didier Drogba’s prolific goal-scoring record against them and Chelsea’s title aspirations.
The hyperbole that surrounded the Gunners’ early season form was as exaggerated as the pessimistic assessments of the defeat to Chelsea proved to be. The Gunners were written off as title contenders at such an early stage of one of the most closely contested campaigns in recent memory, an analysis they have now confounded. However, this Sunday’s game takes on a far greater significance. The clash is a must win – not in the way that November’s was incorrectly billed to be, but as a key indicator of the of Arsenal’s title credentials. Cesc Fabregas released a refreshingly frank appraisal of their recent results and the importance of a win this weekend: “We have to beat them to stay in the title race… I’m not going to lie to myself. Chelsea were better than us, United have been better than us. It’s something we have to make sure doesn’t happen again.” His criticism of the team’s form echoes the manager’s sentiments and indicates a certain harmony between captain and manager – an observation that is more than welcome for fans of the Gunners as Fabregas continues to be used as leverage in Bareclona’s presidential race.
In the spirit of looking backwards and forwards, Arsenal will hope that they can reflect on an important win and at the same time look forwards to their title challenge.