Arsenal took three points from their weekend trip to Bolton, knowing that a similar result in Wednesday’s return fixture would send them top for the first time since August.
As they swept aside their ‘bogey team’ of recent seasons, Arsenal stretched their unbeaten league run to eight games and now appear to be gathering momentum to what increasingly appears to be a full-on title assault. Not since the 2007-08 season have they looked so well equipped to last the distance, when at this stage of the season they had accumulated 50 points from 21 games. In that season, their 22nd game was a score draw at home to Birmingham City, which saw them temporarily knocked off the top. A similar home result in their 22nd game this time around would not remove Arsenal from top spot, but prevent them from taking it.
That game against Birmingham proved to be a blip as the Gunners subsequently recorded four straight victories and regained first place. However, the return fixture against Birmingham – a 2-2 draw away – really derailed their season. The game at St. Andrews saw the Gunners concede a penalty in added time as victory slipped away and added insult to the shocking injury suffered by Eduardo. The result initiated a run of five wins, five draws and two defeats as the north London side limped home to third place in what could otherwise have been a procession to the title. Arsene Wenger will be all too aware of how easily form can slip away and so he will be especially, was keen for Arsenal to seize the initiative, and with it top spot, on Wednesday night. A second win against Bolton in the space of four days would see them crank up the pressure ahead of a potentially season-defining sequence starting at the end of the month against Aston Villa quickly followed by the other three members of the so-called big four.
Another direct comparison to the 2007-08 season is the goal-scoring form of Cesc Fabregas. Then he had the protection of Mathieu Flamini in the defensive midfield position, allowing him to be creative further up the pitch. This time around it has been Alex Song breaking up the opposition’s play and laying the foundations for Arsenal’s free-scoring season so far. It was telling that in Song’s absence against Bolton, Arsene Wenger opted to play an untested youngster in the pivotal role, such is the benefit to the club captain from the formation. As the only recognised defensive midfielder available, the manager showed tremendous faith in young Craig Eastmond, handing him his league debut. The youngster impressed in the middle of the park, looking assured in possession and tenacious in the tackle. Again allowing Fabregas to orchestrate proceedings and help to continue Arsenal’s unbeaten run.
Aside from the captain’s form, key to continuing the sequence will be the return of players from injury. Nicklas Bendtner is edging closer to a first team return from a groin injury that has kept him sidelined for nearly three months. Upon him rests not only the likelihood of the manager entering the transfer market, but also Arsenal’s alternative option up front, or ‘plan B’. Whilst the Gunners have been short of strikers, they have hardly been short of goals, notching another two at the weekend, taking their tally to 55 in the league. In Bendtner’s absence Andrey Arshavin has been played centrally, but on Sunday he returned to his familiar wide role as Eduardo took up the central role. As the Croatian international continues his respective return to fitness, Wenger felt comfortable enough to switch him to the more demanding target man role at the tip of the attacking trident: “The vibes coming out of his game are much better than one month ago. He has been out for such a long time and he is getting stronger and stronger.” His combinations with Cesc Fabregas – particularly for Sunday’s opening goal – proved encouraging and also drew a more active performance from Arshavin who was resorted to his more familiar wide role.
Another welcome return was that of Gael Clichy who has been sorely missed. Since Kieran Gibbs’ unfortunate injury, Armand Traore has been far from convincing at left-back – often conceding possession cheaply and being caught out positionally and tactically on several occasions. Combining this with Arshavin’s reluctance to track back meant that Arsenal were vulnerable down their left, but Clichy’s return should shore up the defence ahead of what could prove to be a pivotal series of fixtures.