Monday, 4 November 2013

Arsène Wenger senses more Arsenal momentum after win over Liverpool - The Guardian

It was not the most articulate line to have left the lips of Arsène Wenger yet it captured perfectly the sense of cautious optimism that has built around his Arsenal team. "It's a kind of … people start to say … 'Oh maybe'," the manager said.

Maybe Arsenal can win the Premier League. The very notion would have met with derision after the opening day home defeat to Aston Villa and the vehement backlash that rocked the club. But there they were on Saturday, composed, aggressive and incisive, deservedly beating an in-form Liverpool to establish a five-point lead at the top of the table.

"After the Aston Villa game, if I had told you we would have been five points clear in November, I would have had to run away because you would have killed me," Wenger said.

The pundits still say no. Arsenal have yet to face either Manchester club or Chelsea, they say. It remains too early to pass a definitive judgment while Arsenal's frailties of seasons gone by make it a risky business to tip them.

The last time that they sat five points clear at the top was in February 2008. Then came the infamous 2-2 draw at Birmingham City, which was scarred by Eduardo da Silva's leg break and William Gallas's meltdown and the club lost their bearings. It was not an isolated wobble. Recent history says that Arsenal will falter.

And yet momentum is growing, along with dressing-room belief. You will not hear any player make a bold statement about how they might win the title; no one wants to jinx it. But, privately, they know that they have a wonderful chance. The Manchester clubs and Chelsea are under new management and, as such, in transition. The league is tantalisingly open. But Arsenal are stable and they have been excellent from the final two months of last season onwards.

"We have more belief [this season] and we are starting to create a bit of fear in the opposition, and that gives us a better chance to win the games," Mikel Arteta said. "When you are on a good run and the confidence level is high, it makes everything much easier."

"In the last few seasons," Bacary Sagna said, "we were responding technically but when we had to go to tough, physical games, sometimes we were not responding. Now, we are more confident with the arrival of [Mesut] Özil and [Mathieu] Flamini. Özil has made us even better technically while with Flamini, we get the confidence of the physical challenge. The team is more together as a group and we can respond to every aspect of the game."

Flamini did not play against Liverpool because of a groin injury but it did not matter. Arteta was superb in front of the back four while Aaron Ramsey drove forward, prompted and killed the game with his long-range pot-shot. It was his 10th goal of the season for Arsenal; he had previously scored 11 in his five seasons at the club. Ramsey's improvement during this calendar year has been startling and it has helped to soften the blow of Jack Wilshere's continuing battle for fitness.

Arsenal's options in midfield provide the greatest reason for optimism and it was in that department that they won this game to make their loudest statement of the season. Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, started with three central defenders and two wing-backs, and he saw Arsenal take charge upon Santi Cazorla's goal. The visitors struggled to suppress Arsenal's runners from midfield.

Rodgers switched to 4-2-3-1 in the second-half, with the substitute Philippe Coutinho looking sharp at left midfield upon his return from injury. Luis Suárez bristled with menace throughout. But the frustration for Liverpool went deeper than the referee Martin Atkinson's decision to pull back Suárez's quick free-kick on 26 minutes, which led to Jordan Henderson putting the ball in the net.

They did not do enough offensively until after Ramsey's goal while Steven Gerrard could not exert his influence. Rodgers said afterwards that the captain "took a knock towards the end with his hip".

Liverpool intend to respond at home to Fulham on Saturday while for Arsenal there are the away games against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League on Wednesday and Manchester United in the league on Sunday. Dortmund hammered Stuttgart 6-1 on Friday night. "I wanted something more testing for them," Wenger said. "Unfortunately, they had a good friendly." Arsenal's defining period has begun well.

Man of the match: Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal)

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