3rd place has never looked so good, has it? A win at Goodison Park last night continued an excellent recent run of form to move Arsenal above Spurs for the first time this season.
Although there were many chances for Arsenal, this will go down as a hard-fought, scrappy 1-0 away victory, with a defender, Thomas Vermaelen, the main hero, scoring the winner early on from a corner and defending like a hero throughout.
There has been an element of luck along the way: Liverpool missed some good chances in our game at Anfield before our late winner, and Everton last night were the victims of some poor refereeing, but that should take nothing away from an Arsenal side that has rediscovered the art of getting stuck in.
And let’s not forget we’ve not been without some ridiculous bad luck ourselves: For a difficult few months we didn’t have any fit full-backs, and all sorts of things were going wrong in games, even in this run of ours now – Blackburn scoring with their only shot at the Emirates, Mertesacker’s slip at Sunderland, Bale’s dive to win a penalty at the Emirates, and a penalty not given for a foul on Rosicky last night.
We have faced endless struggles this season. At times every mistake has been punished, every good chance missed and every decision has gone against us, but we are finally seeing the ‘mental strength’ that Arsene Wenger has talked about for so long. Despite losing key players in the summer (and even more to injury over the course of the season), despite one of our worst starts ever, despite increased competition from big-spending Man City and Liverpool and a much-improved Spurs side, we now sit in 3rd place with nine games to go.
Talent-wise, this is far from the best Arsenal side we’ve seen in recent years, but the character cannot be disputed. Of course everything will come under incredible scrutiny if we hit a bad patch again and drop out of the Champions League places, but I hope we remember that this team at least gave us hope in a season where there rarely looked like being any at all.
The most important factor in our recent run has been the improvement of the defence. This has obviously been helped enormously by the return of Sagna and Gibbs, and the return to the centre of Vermaelen, who is forming an excellent parternship with Koscielny. Yesterday was the first time, in what feels like forever, that I felt pretty confident we would hold on to the lead. We simply weren’t allowing Everton to create anything, and our pressing all over the pitch was excellent. There is a lot of attacking talent in David Moyes’ side, especially with the return on loan of Pienaar, but they weren’t given any time on the ball by our midfielders, not least the recently re-born Rosicky.
It was interesting to notice last night – aside from important results for Chelsea and Spurs – that Liverpool produced one of the capitulations of the season at QPR: 2-0 up with 15 minutes to go and they managed to lose 3-2 to the relegation-fighters. They lie in 7th, 12 points off Spurs in 4th. I guess winning the Carling Cup doesn’t solve all your problems does it? This is not to say I wouldn’t welcome some silverware, but perhaps too much emphasis was put on winning it last year; never before have we taken the League Cup that seriously, and yet when we lost the final it felt like a tragedy and ruined our confidence for the rest of the season.
Anyone can win the cup competitions, just look at Liverpool’s opponents in the final – Cardiff City, who still held the Premier League club to a 2-2 draw. It is all a bit of a gamble and doesn’t really reflect how good you are. I’m sure we’re a better side than Liverpool and were probably more deserving of the cup last season than they were in this.
There will be no silverware this season, but – and perhaps I’ve been listening to Wenger for too long – with all things considered, 3rd would feel like a minor miracle for this season. Hopefully it would provide the springboard for somewhat loftier ambitions next year.