As much as Arsenal are praised for the beguiling wonder of some of their play, they are damned for the predictable nature of their defeats.
That is why, even though Arsène Wenger extended his contract this season, around the Emirates there is talk of resignation – not of the manager, but of the abundant Arsenal fans who dolefully expect more big-game disappointment tomorrow.
The figure that spawns such fatalism is well-known: Arsenal have lost 10 and drawn one of their past 11 clashes with their two chief rivals, Chelsea and Manchester United. Few see evidence that the trend will change when Chelsea chug into the Emirates – after all, Chelsea, as so often, generally kept Arsenal at arm's length when beating them 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in October, just as United did when winning 1-0 at Old Trafford two weeks ago. Even more than the results, it was the familiar manner of those losses that grated with Arsenal fans, who fear their biggest opponents have devised a formula for subduing Arsenal and 61-year-old Wenger is either too naive or too set in his ways to react accordingly.
Whether at home or away, Chelsea and United tend to sit deep against Arsenal, inviting Wenger's bees to buzz busily around them, almost smug in the belief that none will sting. Then the more savvy, direct beasts strike on the counterattack. There have been pleas from the stands for Wenger to recognise this and to counteract it, perhaps with two holding midfielders (or at least by instructing Alexandre Song to curb his forward runs) in order to lessen the chance of being outmuscled in the main theatre of battle, or maybe by aiming to attack more directly. Wenger, however, maintains that there is no need for Arsenal to alter their approach, they must merely apply their usual one better.
"[Cesc] Fábregas and [Robin] Van Persie are fit – if they play and you hit long balls, you will not exist so we have to be faithful to our game," Wenger says. "It's the same when Barcelona plays. When they win everybody admires the way they play, when they don't win, everybody says: 'Why don't you change your style?' I believe we have to play our real game but with more belief, be more dynamic instead of changing completely our style. We have to move the ball a little quicker."
Chelsea may appear more vulnerable now than at any time in the Roman Abramovich era, having won only once in the league in more than two months and taken six points from the past 21 available, but Wenger concedes that high-stakes matches have often made his youthful team apprehensive. He laments that against both United and Chelsea this season pre-match worries were compounded by falling behind. "The first goal is very important in these kind of games," he says. "We didn't score in the two games [against United and Chelsea earlier this season] and that means we played a little bit with a restricted attitude."
Not conceding tomorrow entails stifling Didier Drogba, who in recent years has shown the mental fortitude that Arsenal players have lacked by rising to the big occasion – and the physical fortitude to consistently bully Arsenal centre-backs. Laurent Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci, both newcomers to England, have frequently been identified as weak links in the side this season, and Wenger hopes they silence their critics by silencing Drogba. "Drogba is a big-game player and against Chelsea he is the guy you need to keep quiet," says Wenger, who knows that task will be more difficult now Frank Lampard seems set to return to action.
"They have a good tandem with Drogba and Lampard because Lampard always finds Drogba when he plays so we have to cut that supply. That's the key to the game. Overall we must defend more solidly."
If Arsenal succeed in doing that, Wenger believes they will have a sturdy platform to win. And sSucceed in ending their winless streak against their main rivals and Arsenal's players will, Wenger says, be truly convinced that they can win the title. Succeed in doing that – or even in lifting the League Cup, which Wenger is taking more seriously than ever this season – and Wenger foresees an era of dominance that will dispel any inferiority complex felt toward Chelsea. "We just have to get over that hurdle. As long as a team has not won, they wonder: 'Can we win?' It is a mental thing. The first trophy will be the big one – until then the question that always comes back is 'yes, but what did you win?' I understand and accept that. Our purpose this season is to deliver and respond to the demands that people have."
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