International break is lousy timing for in-form Gunners ahead of busy run-in

After three good wins on the bounce, it is a shame that Arsenal don’t take to the field again for something like a fortnight.

Winning is a habit and the confidence that comes with it so hard won, especially for a Gunners side that had hit rock bottom, and then kept on plunging.

Still, a break from domestic football gives us all a chance to reflect, savour, and once again ponder on what lies ahead for the team, with plenty going on domestically and in the Europa League in April and, hopefully, May.

What has impressed most over the last fortnight has been the shift in focus from the team which has made them noticeably less porous in midfield and defence, though we have enjoyed a good pinch of two of luck in that department, too.

After seeming to go without a clean sheet for the greater part of a century, we had two in quick succession in Milan and against Watford. How odd it felt not to have a ‘both teams to score’ bet come in after enjoying a quite glorious run of success in that department.

While we can attribute a certain amount of that defensive renaissance to good fortune and good goalkeeping (both Milan and Watford spurned some pretty good chances), there also seems to have been a proverbial boot up the backside for some of the players.

The improved effort is epitomised by Granit Xhaka, a man who had become synonymous with ambling 20 yards behind play as the ball inevitably sailed into the Arsenal net. In recent weeks, the Swiss has put a much greater focus on his defensive work and has genuinely done the hard yards on the pitch, and rightly so.

Clearly, some good work has been done on the training ground in terms of bolstering what had become a laughable defence. And while we still give up far too many good quality chances for my taste, at least we are doing the basics, something we were simply neglecting to do previously, whether through a lack of concentration or by design.

A cynical man would suggest this is what Arsene Wenger always does at this stage of the season, when the team’s race is run and all that is left to play for is pride. There is a good deal of truth in that. The redoubling of efforts typically arrives at Arsenal after a crisis and disappears again just in time for the start of the new league campaign in August.

All we can do is hope that, this time, at long last, the manager may finally heed the warnings of the last five years and work to transfer a little of that April/May solidity into the rest of the season.

Further forward there have also been reasons to be cheerful, too. Henrikh Mhikitaryan and Mesut Ozil are performing quite superbly together – despite the defensive sacrifices that are made to accommodate them – while Aaron Ramsey, Xhaka, and Jack Wilshere appear to dovetail nicely in midfield.

As games go by and partnerships continue to cement, I hope to see those players improve further and turn what is a dangerous attack into a lethal one, especially with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette up top to service.

In terms of our Premier League campaign, it appears futile to pin our hopes on a top four finish given the quality of our rivals but you simply never know. An injury here, a downturn in form there, a knock to confidence thrown in for good measure.

It is a little desperate, I admit, but it certainly won’t hurt for the players to go out and try and win every game that remains this season.

The real focus, I suspect, will be on winning the Europa League and securing a back passage into the Champions League.

After hammering AC Milan 5-1 over two legs, we have been rewarded with a quarter final against CSKA Moscow.

The political machinations of that draw aside, it is a good chance for the team to book their place in a semi-final and, from there, who knows.

We go into the first leg at the Emirates as favourite and, if we play as well as we all know we can, we should be able to put ourselves in a good position.

Of course, complacency is never far from any Arsenal performance but, one would hope, the players realise just how important it is for the club and for their own futures, that they give it their all in a bid to get back into the continent’s premier club competition.

In an ideal world, we would have a nice comfortable home league game this weekend and the first leg of the quarter final next week, giving us a chance to seize on our recent upturn, but things rarely pan out as we would want them to.

Instead, the squad will be dispersing to all corners of the globe for a round of international friendly fixtures, while Gunners fans sit at home and sweat on players making it through 180 minutes unscathed (yes, you, Jack Wilshere).

Hopefully, everyone can make it back in one piece and the manager can get them all refocused and raring to go again for an enormously important run in.


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