The Arsenal Monday verdict: Close to the top, but not close to good enough

Another away win keeps the Gunners in title contention, but question marks still hang over a defence that is leaking goals

AFTER a week of mourning following the derby defeat to Spurs, Arsenal fans scanned the Premier League table on Monday morning and probably wondered what all the fuss was about.

Somehow, despite three home defeats and a sound beating by Chelsea, the Gunners are just two points behind league leaders Manchester United, with a meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side looming on December 13.

The reason for this surprisingly healthy state of affairs is Arsenal’s imperious away form that is by some distance the best in the top flight. Despite that defeat at Stamford Bridge the Gunners have taken 17 points from 24 on the road.

The latest of the five victories came with the 4-2 win at Villa Park on Saturday, after which Arsene Wenger admitted he was a little puzzled as to why his side have reversed their usual form so far this season and started winning on the road, but losing at home.

“I prefer to have the problem this way around than the other way around,” joked the Frenchman. “At home at some stage you will get things right. There is no fear from the players. Maybe we want a bit more urgency at home and feel at the start a bit too confident.”

Wenger will be hoping that upturn in home form arrives immediately, as the Gunners prepare for three games in nine days at the Emirates that could go a long way to deciding if this will be a successful season or not.

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Wigan arrive for the Carling Cup quarter-final tomorrow night, followed by Fulham in the Premier League on Saturday and then Partizan Belgrade in what has become a must-win final Champions League group game next Wednesday night.

Three victories and the Gunners will head to Old Trafford in two weeks’ time in confident mood, despite the sight of Dimitar Berbatov putting five of United’s seven goals past Blackburn on Saturday and Wayne Rooney looking as fit as he has done all year.

In truth, Arsenal could probably also have had seven on Saturday as, even without skipper Cesc Fabregas, they totally dominated a Villa side that currently looks a shadow of its former self.

The same could be said of Robert Pires, who struggled for the opening 45 minutes before being taken off at half-time by Gerard Houllier.

However the 37-year-old should probably be afforded a little more time to see if he can last the pace in the Premier League four years after leaving it.

The way he was written off as past-it by some reporters at the weekend seemed a little too hasty a conclusion to draw on a player who has always relied on mental speed rather than physical. Houllier is unlikely to be quite so knee-jerk in his reaction.

There were some raised eyebrows when the team-sheet showed that Wenger had stuck by his all-French back four and, despite the victory, questions still need to be asked of some of the defending that allowed Villa back into the game on two occasions in the second half.

Gael Clichy has had his problems in the past 18 months, but Wenger has always stuck by him. However, the left-back’s decision to stand off Ciaran Clark and allow him to shoot, and score, to make it 2-1 just after half-time was alarming.

Another goal conceded from a set piece to allow Villa back to 3-2 was also a concern, and made it seven goals conceded in three games inside a week

“I believe we had three good performances and for me against Tottenham we played well,” countered Wenger. “We had a lot of possession in a difficult game in Braga and we responded well today.

“Overall you focus on the performance – you do not always lose when you dominate games and that’s what happened [on Saturday]. We played well, Villa had a good response in the second half but we managed to find the resources to win the game.”

Given Chelsea’s continued struggles, with two more points dropped at Newcastle now turning their blip in form to a proper slump and just one win from five games, Arsenal head into December in a better position than they have been for the past two seasons.

However, nobody is kidding themselves at the Emirates. Goals are being conceded freely, and no game ever appears to be safe.

With the trip to United on the horizon and then Chelsea coming to the Emirates over Christmas, Wenger knows that this fragility will be exposed by better sides, and that there will be no reprieve second time around.

The message is simple – they must tighten up at the back or else. A home win - and a clean sheet - would not go amiss this weekend against Fulham.