Arsenal travel to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday in search of three points and some much-needed momentum, something that has proven as frustratingly elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel in recent times.
Since the turn of the year, the Gunners have been, to put it mildly, staggeringly inconsistent – typically following a good performance or two with an absolute miasma of codswallop.
Of the last 10 matches played in all competitions, Arsene Wenger’s side have won five and lost five. If that is not inconsistent I don’t know what is.
It is vital they shake off the self-doubt and crippling lack of confidence that has plagued them these last few weeks and a trip to West Brom will be a real acid test for whether they have turned a corner. In fact, a good scrap may be just what they need to reawaken the fight in this side.
In his pre-match press conference, the manager said: “It’s a strange championship because there’s no continuity at the moment – we’ve had games cancelled, then after you play away, you don’t play, you play FA Cup and you play away again,” he said.
“So you don’t really know where you stand. You don’t have the same number of games, you don’t have the continuity home and away. What is for sure is that we are in a position where we can’t waste points.
“We want to play in the Champions League next season. We have a tough job because we have six or seven teams fighting for the places and how well we do until the end of the season will of course depend on that.
“On the rest, we are in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, we have an opportunity to do that as well. So overall those are our targets. After that, success is basically to take the maximum out of the potential of the team. Where is that? We will see.”
The real conundrum about this weekend’s clash is which Arsenal side is going to turn up for kick-off. Will we see the same sort of desire and commitment from the side we saw in the first half against Bayern Munich or the utter disarray and haplessness of the second half of that same game? In truth, we are equally capable of both at the moment and that is the greatest concern as we head into the business end of the season.
If we continue to drop points we risk being cut adrift from those chasing Champions League places at the top of the table. When three-point gaps become six and nine-point gaps, heads start to drop and our predicament worsens.
Arsene’s job after all our recent disappointments is to refocus the team on a new target. If the players can rally themselves for another top four battle then there is no reason why we shouldn’t ease past West Brom. If they can’t find the desire and hunger to chase what is, in effect, a consolation prize, then we are in real trouble indeed.
Whatever you think of him, Tony Pulis is no mug and he will be very clear on what his team needs to do to get a result. Primarily that will involve being incredibly disruptive, physical, and hard to break down – I expect no less from Saturday’s fixture. Arsenal and Arsene should be wise to that old chestnut, however, and the way the Baggies set up should come as no surprise. The oft-trotted-out ‘we weren’t prepared for’ excuse is simply not going to cut it this weekend.
If there is fight enough left in this team to make a real go of it in these last few months, I think it will be obvious from the start. How they acquit themselves in those first few minutes of what should be a realtively straightforward, surprise-free match will be a real indicator of what lays in store in the immediate future.
With any luck, they’ll be 6-0 up and playing against nine men before the 10-minute mark.
Head to head
The Gunners have a pretty good record against the Baggies, despite their reputation for physical violence on the pitch. Wenger’s men have won eight, drawn one and lost one of the team’s last 10 meetings. The lone defeat in that run – a 2-1 reverse – came in November 2015.
In that 10-game period, Arsenal have scored 16 goals and conceded just six. So although this is a fixture that not many fans look forward to, it seems we have proven ourselves perfectly capable of getting the job done against the West Midlands side over the years.