Arsenal put down a marker with victory over Manchester United on Sunday but the hard work is only just beginning as the battle for the top four enters the home straight.
Toughing out a win over a lively United side at the Emirates saw the Gunners seize a big opportunity to pressurise their Premier League rivals, with the three points moving them up into fourth place, two points clear of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men and just a point behind Tottenham, who lost out at Southampton on Saturday.
However, the road ahead is long and littered with potential pitfalls. Sunday’s 2-0 victory made sure the Gunners were in the fight and, now we’re in it, we have to stay in the mix until the last round.
Unai Emery’s side have been imperious all season at home and were committed, tenacious and determined against the Red Devils. The ambition shown by Emery in his selection was admirable without a doubt, but his gamble ultimately paid dividends as the Gunners made the most of their opportunities and United didn’t.
If this victory is to be a seminal moment, however, the challenge will be to follow up with victories in our difficult away games to come – at the likes of Leicester, Burnley, and Everton.
Every one of those games will present a fresh problem for Arsenal and they will need to find a way of carrying their home form into their fixtures on the road or we may find the hard-won advantage gained in victory over United handed straight back.
With this United match successfully seen off, we have now faced all of our top six rivals home and away. The hardest graft is done but we can’t be complacent.
The picture has changed every week in the last month, with a new team in the driving seat, or some other side destined to miss out.
The best thing is, we’re in control of our own destiny from here. Defeat would have left us needing favours but now we can turn the screw with our own efforts.
We have eight huge league games remaining. In all likelihood, we will need five wins from those fixtures. If we take maximum points against Newcastle, Brighton, and Crystal Palace (although nothing is ever a given), that leaves us needing at least two wins from our five matches on the road – if not three.
That is no small task given our record this season.
Thankfully, this team has shown it is full of fight and it is going to need to be if we are to capitalise on what was a big win today.
Emery took a lot of criticism in the build-up to kick-off for going with Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka in centre midfield, with Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang forming a front three.
However, the Spaniard deserves a great deal of credit for selecting an attacking side and placing the onus on the team to defend as a unit and get forward in numbers too.
To a man, they ran their socks off and covered the ground much better than United which, in the end, probably made the difference in the game.
Unsurprisingly, Solskjaer again set his team up to counter attack and they had a number of good chances to score. In January’s FA Cup clash, those efforts went in – today, they didn’t.
One of the key differences between the two matches, though, was the way in which Arsenal went toe-to-toe with United for the first 30 minutes and stopped the likes of Fred and Paul Pogba from getting the ball forward.
There was a touch of good fortune about the circumstances surrounding Xhaka’s goal but, if you don’t have a go, you can’t score a goal, so hats off to him for the attempt and an even bigger hats off to David De Gea for actively avoiding making the save.
The second goal – a penalty – was soft in anyone’s estimation but, as the commentators rightly pointed out, Fred gave John Moss a decision to make when he had no real need to. It was a silly attempt to play the ball in a silly area and he paid for it.
Although Aubameyang’s penalty was every bit as nervous and safe as it was last week against Tottenham, this time he got away with it as De Gea dived the wrong way.
At 2-0, Arsenal really took control of the match. They dropped 10 yards and ushered United into areas of the pitch in which they could be controlled. It was a decent defensive effort and well rewarded with a clean sheet.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Bernd Leno must take a tremendous amount of credit. He has been excellent for the last five games and has grown into the number one role. The start to his Arsenal career was solid, if unspectacular, but we are starting to see him come of age as a serious presence in the back line.
He produced a brilliant save to deny Romelu Lukaku in the second half and was excellent in his decision making too – his sweeping on a couple of occasions arguably saved a one-on-one opportunity.
I honestly think the German has earned us points against Southampton, Tottenham, and again today with some brilliant work between the posts.