The Arsenal Monday verdict: Clean sheets just make winning so much easier
Arsenal 1 West Ham United 0
FOR all the beautiful football and brilliant players Arsene Wenger has brought to the club, sometimes you can’t beat the good old 1-0 to the Arsenal.
That is what many supporters were thinking as they surged out on to the streets and headed to the pubs around the Emirates on Saturday night to chew over the victory against West Ham.
Alex Song’s late winner made it five wins in a row in all competitions, the perfect response to the defeat at Chelsea in early October that left the season in the balance – Arsenal are flying again.
Victory over West Ham completed a perfect week, coming hard on the heels of winning 3-0 at Manchester City and 4-0 at Newcastle in the Carling Cup in midweek.
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Three wins in seven days, but also three clean sheets. The importance of that last statistic was not lost on Wenger, who could afford to joke about it in the press conference afterwards.
“That’s new for me!” said Wenger. “A day where I don’t have to look on the television slow motion to see why we conceded a goal does not happen often so I am very happy with that.”
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So he should be. It makes winning football matches a whole lot easier. Cast your minds back to that defeat against West Bromwich Albion – when Arsenal also scored two late goals, but still lost having somehow allowed Albion to score three times at the Emirates.
On Saturday, West Ham certainly had their moments to sneak a lead, and Arsenal fans are all too used to seeing soft goals conceded, and then a high-energy chase to rectify the situation late in the game.
But knowing one goal will win you the game is a far less stressful situation to be in, and more often than not you know Arsenal will get it.
“We kept the structure of our game right, we didn’t do anything stupid, we kept trying to be intelligent and that in the end got us the goal with two minutes to go,” said Wenger.
“That was vital and for the belief and confidence of the team as well, on the back of a big win at Manchester City, not to capitalise on that would have been dreadful for us.”
The shutout was also another boost for Lukasz Fabianski, whose metamorphosis from calamity keeper to sturdy No1 is taking shape with every passing game. He didn’t have much to do on Saturday, but he came for crosses, caught everything, and looked confident. He was not like that six months ago when Arsenal were getting battered and beaten at Wigan and Blackburn.
“You see him play and you feel that he is much more confident,” admitted Wenger. “And this confidence spreads out to the fans and they give him that back. We trust him so touch wood it continues like that.”
The recent run has also been achieved despite the continued absence of Thomas Vermaelen, indisputably the first choice of Arsenal’s four centre-halves, who has now missed 13 games with his achilles injury sustained on international duty with Belgium in early September.
Sebastien Squallaci has stepped in impressively though, and is a signing Wenger must be pleased with. He was not an inspiring signing, but defenders rarely are. However, he has added stability and more than a little toughness. Neither nor his compatriot Laurent Koscielny gave West Ham a sniff of goal on Saturday.
But it was Song who received the most plaudits and deservedly so. His name may suggest otherwise, but he has been the unsung hero of this Arsenal side of late, and has now added goals to his all-action performances.
It was noticeable that after he had finally broken the deadlock with his header from Gael Clichy’s cross, Song was the man who won a vital challenge on the edge of the Arsenal box as the Gunners failed to clear a free-kick.
An hour later when he emerged from the dressing room he did so with a heavily strapped ankle that may keep him out of this week’s trip to Ukraine to face Shakhtar Donetsk.
“It was hurting a lot for the last 20 minutes but I just kept going” said Song, perfecting the art of understatement. Kept going, scored a diving header for the winning goal and then won a vital tackle at the other end of the pitch.
It is more of that kind of spirit that will maintain a title challenge for Arsenal this season. That, and plenty of clean sheets. And plenty of 1-0 wins….