“Let’s be realistic. I think we are intelligent people and if we have learnt one thing from this Premier League it is just ‘let’s look at the next one’. Think about the results, there have been surprises all along the season. This Premier League is very tricky.”
That was Arsène Wenger speaking a few hours before a much-changed Chelsea side sprung arguably the surprise of the season by winning at Anfield against a Liverpool side who seemed to have one hand on the Premier League trophy.
The reply was in response to a question about Arsenal securing a top-four finish by winning their next two home games and potentially rotating in the last Premier League game of the season with the FA Cup final looming.
We should have known better.
Arsenal: Gibbs (hamstring), Gnabry (knee), Wilshere (foot), Walcott (knee)
Newcastle: Sissoko (doubt – hamstring), Ben Arfa (doubt – hip), De Jong (doubt – ankle), Cisse (knee), Santon (hamstring), Obertan (knee), R Taylor (knee), Sami Ameobi (ankle)
April has been a month of contrasts. It began with a chastening defeat at Everton that handed the initiative to Roberto Martinez’s team in the fight for fourth place. However Arsenal responded with a deserved (albeit knife-edge) victory over Wigan in the FA Cup semi-final, a comeback against West Ham and a controlled victory at Hull. Meanwhile Everton have faltered, losing to Crystal Palace – just after they had put their fate in their own hands – and Southampton at the weekend.
Wenger’s take-each-game-as-it-comes approach may not make great copy but it has eased Arsenal back in control of their immediate targets. Of course, they have been here before – if Arsenal do beat Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion to secure fourth place with a game to go it will be the earliest they have done it in three years. In the last two years they have had to wait until the final afternoon when, ironically enough, narrow, nail-biting wins at West Brom and Newcastle were enough.
“Yes, we have learned to deal with this kind of pressure [over the years],” said Wenger. “We have to show maturity and that is linked with a focus on the right perspective, the right target.
“In our job we just go to the next game. Whether Everton win or lose, we want to win our next one after the convincing win at Hull. It is important for us to show continuity because we know what is at stake. Newcastle at home is very important to us and we just want to give everything.”
Alan Pardew’s side are ninth in the Premier League but, in the form table, they are in the relegation zone after five straight defeats. They have lost nine of their last 12 games and their position has only held up because of a fine first half of the campaign. So which is the real Newcastle – the one from 2013 or 2014?
“They were in a very good position at Christmas but they lost big players to injury and of course they lost [Yohan] Cabaye,” said Wenger. “That has not helped them.
“Their recent history is not so positive but the potential is there. That is why we have to focus on keeping them quiet and having a good defensive performance. That is the basis for us. We know that they have players who can make a difference like Sissoko, Remy, Gouffran and Ben Arfa.”
Wenger’s emphasis on defensive solidity is interesting. He knows that, before the Hull game, Arsenal had shipped 14 goals in their last six games.
I think we are intelligent people and if we have learnt one thing from this Premier League it is just ‘let’s look at the next one’. Think about the results, there have been surprises all along the season
“Yes, we have been conceding too many goals in recent weeks,” he said. “We have been very tight or very open. There was no inbetween. That is why the confidence of the team is linked with defensive stability and we want to take care of that.”
‘Taking care’ might be the key phrase this week at Emirates Stadium. On paper, Newcastle and West Brom seem eminently beatable but the very point the manager is trying to put across is anti-prediction, anti-assumption and, therefore, anti-complacency.
Many will make Arsenal favourites for a top-four spot and an FA Cup victory. It is entirely understandable given their reputation, their experience and their control of the situation.
But Liverpool will have felt exactly the same before Sunday’s game at Anfield. And, for that matter, who thought Brendan Rodgers’ side would be in that position six months ago anyway?
So let’s not predict or assume for now; just believe and support.
The job is nearly done Arsenal.
Just take care.