Last week was pretty damn awful for Arsenal. A miserable mid-week match against Watford was followed by an expected yet nonetheless disappointing defeat at Chelsea. Now 12 points behind the leaders, our title challenge is surely over. It’s hard not to imagine that belief in the group is low. Saturday sees a recovering Hull City visit the Emirates Stadium and another opportunity for Sky Sports to continue their narrative of Arsenal being soft and weak for having one of their players concussed.
Well, let’s hope that won’t be the case. Hull arrive having rediscovered the winning feeling under the guidance of that “geezer” Marco Silva. They’ve accrued seven points from their last four league games, including a clean sheet at Old Trafford and a home win over Liverpool. Silva has Hull more organised with and without the ball. With their confidence growing, they may well fancy getting another positive result against a vulnerable Arsenal side.
As for us, Wenger certainly hasn’t given up on the title:
“It’s never over. We cannot behave like that. Even if you think it is, I don’t. We cannot even think like that. We look at the teams around us and we’re all in a pack that’s very tight, where the fight for every position will be massive, like it always has been in the Premier League.”
You’d absolutely hope that the team continues to fight in every game and play like there is still something at stake. Whether they will, though, is another thing entirely. This is a tricky phase of the season where the title is no longer a realistic aim but setting a top four finish as the target isn’t going to get anyone fired up. I won’t say the pressure is off but it won’t be as great as it was before, where every defeat saw us slip further away from Chelsea. There’s a danger here of losing focus.
If the players needed a reminder not to underestimate anyone in the Premier League, they got it against Watford. Should we turn up on Saturday without the required levels of focus, we’ll struggle. Bayern Munich is just around the corner and it’s tempting to have one eye on that encounter. It is, after all, one of the two prizes left to play for this season. But first comes Hull and getting back to winning ways and giving everyone around the club a lift. The players departing the Emirates to a shower of boos is the last thing they need. As Wenger said:
“I want the fans to be behind the team. But at the same time, I am not fool enough not to know that the first priority is us and our dynamic inside the team that will create and facilitate the support of our fans. That is down to the quality of our performance.”
We probably will see an improved performance, if for no reason that Arsenal tend to perform better when the stakes aren’t so high. Whether that’s down to less pressure or a renewed desire to prove people wrong, it’s become something of a trend in recent seasons. The task for the team now is to communicate that to a set of fans with very little patience.
In terms of team news, we could be without Hector Bellerin due to the FA’s protocols on concussion. A series of examinations has kept the Spaniard out of training and he could well be forced to miss Saturday’s game as well. This will likely see Gabriel fill in at right back once more. It’s not an ideal situation, as Gabriel’s expected lack of quality in attack hinders the team, but concussion is nothing to mess around with.
Mohamed Elneny has returned to the squad after representing Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations. Elneny scored Egypt’s only goal in the final but suffered heartbreak as Cameroon turned the score around and won the game in stoppage time. Wenger will want him to get over his disappointment quickly as he’ll be needed, given our injury problems. I expect he’ll be on the bench as Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain continue in midfield.
Hull, meanwhile, have been boosted by the returns of Ahmed Elmohamady and Lazar Markovic, but will be without Abel Hernandez and Michael Dawson. Dieumerci Mbokani is also a doubt due to illness. While this leaves Hull short up front, Arsenal will need to be aware of Oumar Niasse, who scored in last week’s win over Liverpool, and Polish winger Kamil Grosicki, who made a positive impact on debut.
It’s set to be a tighter game than some expect, given the form of both teams. With any luck, a focused Arsenal side will turn up and get a convincing victory, especially as Tottenham and Liverpool play each other on Saturday evening. Any dropped points here will do nothing to get the fans back onside nor for Arsenal’s confidence ahead of their trip to Germany next Wednesday.