21 November 2013

Wojciech talks up a title challenge—without putting his foot in it

Speaking ahead of Saturday's visit from Southampton, Wojciech Szczesny had quite a bit to say about Arsenal's chances at winning the Prem. More important than what he said was how he said it. That is, instead of blathering on or bragging or saying
something cringe-worthy, he spoke rather modestly and frankly about the club and its form to date:
I wouldn't say we have proved anyone wrong and passed all the tests, and I can't say that until we get our hands on a trophy in May, but what is important is what we believe in, and we believe that we are good enough with the players we have got and the work we are doing to win the Premier League. We have shown that to people over the last six months or so. We know that if we just carry on doing the same thing, we will show people that this team and these players are good enough to win a trophy without any extra additions or the extra work people are talking about. We are confident that we see the quality is there and we know that, when we play at our very best and do it consistently well, we can beat anyone, basically. If we are at our best, we will win a trophy. But we have to make sure we keep our form going and not just rest on our laurels.
I don't think anyone could object to that. He makes a number of very valid points. We haven't proven anyone wrong yet. Despite how well we've started, we're still part of a tight logjam at the top of the table. On one hand, it's difficult to know whether Southampton can keep up with the pace over the full season (I'm willing to bet that they will); on the other, it's less likely that Man City, Man U, or Chelsea will continue their own uneven form. As for our own results, we have to keep in mind that we've beaten a Spurs side that is adjusting to the loss of Gareth Bale and the additions of several new starters, beaten a Liverpool side that might have been punching above its weight, and lost to an off-kilter Man U. In other words, there are asterisks attached to our key Prem League wins. We haven't faced Chelsea (in the Prem) or Man City yet, and it may only be after that stretch of fixtures in December that we have a true sense of our prospects.

That said, we've improved in one key area—dropping points to teams below us on the table. In seasons past, we've labored to earn draws or staggered to shock losses to teams we really must beat if we're serious about a title-challenge. The home-loss to Aston Villa stands out as the only real exception thus far; last year, by contrast, we drew with Sunderland and Stoke, lost at Norwich, and drew with Fulham, not to mention non-Prem losses to Bradford and Blackburn to close out other silverware opportunities.  In a sense, then, that's one test passed. Maybe it's a quiz. Or, um, let's just leave aside the school metaphor and move on.

Woj goes on to talk of the belief in the squad, and that is certainly evident. Last year, even during the run-in, there was always a sense that the other shoe was about to drop, that it was all on the verge of falling to absolute pieces. For a few days after Aston Villa, that sense pervaded the atmosphere. Now, however, the sense of confidence, even of resilience, seems to abound. So we lost to Man U? Eh, they were lucky. We lost to Dortmund? We'll bounce back and beat them. And so on. That's not passing a test (confound you, school metaphor...), but it is a test of character. Gone, for now, are the days when a loss was also a crisis or a symbol of our fragility. It seems we're talking out of both sides of our mouths a bit when we defend Jack's cigarette-smoking or garbled "England for the English" by pointing out that he's only 21 and then talk up the deepened maturity in the squad. At the risk of splitting hairs, though, they can both hold true (if only because Jack has had trouble getting on or staying on the pitch lately!).

The club itself does seem more mature. Olivier isn't pressing so hard. Kos seems more assured. Gibbs and Jenkinson look more confident. Ramsey is, well, Ramsey. Woj seems more focused and less cocky. When he speaks of not resting on our laurels, it sounds like an entirely new man speaking. It would be all too easy to remind people that, yes, we did beat Bayern or finish above Spurs again and qualified for the Champions League for a 16th straight season or...or... Instead of hearkening to the past, we're focusing on the present, on learning from our most recent match(es) and preparing for the next. Twice, Woj couches his comments as an "if" statement, as in "if we just carry on doing the same thing" and "if we play our best, we will win a trophy." I don't think anyone could dispute that. It's a healthy balance between optimism and realism. We lost to Man U, but it carried none of the sting of previous defeats.

Instead, it seems to have tested our resolve ahead of a tricky fixture, which is itself ahead of a tricky string of fixtures. Had we drawn or won at Old Trafford, we might have then convinced ourselves that we've proven something, which we would have—to an extent. Ironically, the loss does prove something: we have quality. Instead of despairing over yet another defeat at the hands of Man U, we've come away simply disappointed, knowing that just a bit more might have seen us take a point, if not all three. That's a mindset, a belief that suggests that we are, in Woj's words, good enough to win a trophy. That's not boasting. It's a statement of fact—and of intent.

Right. It's still more than two days until Southampton. Give my match preview a look-see if you haven't already. The Saints are a tough not to crack, but we have the tools to do it. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock...