By Eddie Smith
As far as the timing of international breaks go, this one couldn’t have come any better for Arsenal. It’s fair to say the Gunners have been battered from pillar to post in recent weeks and were it not for a late rally at the Hawthorns on Saturday, their season may already have suffered the killer knockout blow. Fortunately for Arsene Wenger’s men, his team have been saved by the bell, giving him one last chance to mentally and physically regroup his troops for one last push towards the Premier League title.
Just a few weeks ago, Arsenal fans were daring to dream of an unprecedented quadrouple after a first leg victory over the might of Barcelona and a Carling Cup win seemingly inevitable as the Gunners were overwhelming favourites ahead of their clash with Birmingham City. Suddenly there was huge demand for Arsenal football shirt printing with stars like Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri in contention for player of the year.
However within a matter of days, as it seems to do at this stage of the season for the Gunners, their season started to completely unravel around them. Injuries to Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott in their midweek victory over Stoke ruled them out of the Cup final, a match which they would suffer a shock defeat as their defensive frailties reared their head once again. With the likes of United and Chelsea, you would expect them to bounce back stronger, but there was an air of inevitability about what would happen next for Arsenal.
Crucial league points were dropped at home to Sunderland before the farcical sending off of Van Persie saw them edged out by Barcelona at the Camp Nou. A few days later and they were out the FA Cup, their third competition exited in just a few weeks and worse still, Johan Djourou became their second centre back ruled out for the season. Only at Arsenal could such promise turn to such despair in such a short space of time.
With 20 minutes to go at West Brom on Saturday, Arsenal fans could be forgiven for writing off yet another season and looking ahead to the 2011-12 season for which their new home shirt has just been unveiled. But suddenly, Arsenal found the character that has been badly lacking in recent weeks and goals from Andrei Arshavin and van Persie earned a point, withe them being unlucky not to go on and take all three.
Looking at the league table, the home game with title rivals Manchester United yet to come and the distractions Alex Ferguson’s side have both in Europe and in the FA Cup, Arsenal are in a very strong position to win the title. They badly need to regroup, of that there is no doubt, but the international break has given them the opportunity to do this. It’s also given the injured Fabregas and Walcott a little extra time to recover before the crucial games begin in earnest.
For me, the title is not beyond Arsenal but it will involve some major decisions from Arsene Wenger. He must decide whether to continue with the calamitous Manuel Almunia or turn to the experienced hands of Jens Lehmann. With a makeshift defence and Almunia’s tendency to cost his side crucial points, turning to the German is a decision Wenger would be advised to make now before Almunia’s next blunder means it’s too late.
The second decision relates to the formation. While Arsenal have stuck to the tried and tested 4-5-1, there is an argument that at this stage of the season, more firepower is needed. Marouane Chamakh offers the Gunners a plan B in the form of an aerial threat and pairing him with van Persie could be the difference between those 0-0′s at home to Sunderland and the 1-0 victory that wins them the title.
The Gunners might be down in recent weeks, but if they use the international break to regain their focus, they are most certainly not yet out.