Of all the cliches that linger around our sport, the adage that “a week is a long time in football” is one of the more pertinent. Or at least it’s made pertinent by how suddenly the tone surrounding a club, player or manager can swing from one extreme to the other based on a single game.
Fortunes can turn even more sharply during certain periods of a season, of course, a fact demonstrated by the 2013-14 campaigns of both Arsenal and West Brom. The last time the sides met in the league, West Brom were sat happily in mid-table – two places above Manchester United – having just secured their first win at Old Trafford since 1978.
After Arsenal’s 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns, which still left us at top of the division, Arsene Wenger commented:
“West Brom confirmed today why they won at Manchester United, because they have good pace in every position and they have a huge squad. They have a massive squad of quality players.”
The verdict seems bizarrely generous in hindsight, yet similar praise was being applied to the Baggies at the time by other managers and pundits too.
Up to that game Saido Berahino had scored six times in six games, including the winning goal against United, prompting predictable talk of him making England’s World Cup squad. But between then and last week’s winner against West Ham, he scored just twice in 25 appearances, and now has about as much chance of making Roy Hodgson’s squad as Max Clifford has of being awarded a knighthood.
As for the rest of West Brom’s supposedly huge and high quality squad, they were of course cheated out of a win at Stamford Bridge on 9th November – yet then took just one point from a possible 15, a run that saw Steve Clarke sacked. Having been widely lauded for over-performing in his first season (see chart below), and gaining widespread respect for the subsequent performances against United, Arsenal and Chelsea, a five-week period of poor form culminated in Clarke being dumped onto the scrapheap.
— Guardian sport (@guardian_sport) May 2, 2014
Again – how swiftly things change.
Arsenal’s season has had its turning points, too – certainly in 2014. As I posted on Twitter a few weeks ago, the contrast in our form before and after the Southampton game in January is startling:
Was Southampton the turning point? Arsenal’s form since & including that night: DWLDWLWLWDWLDDL. The 15 games before then: WWWWWWWDLLDWWWW
— Gingers for Limpar (@Gingers4Limpar) April 9, 2014
Wenger’s side went to St Mary’s still one point clear at the top of the league – but just over a month later had slipped to third, positioned above Manchester City only because of their two games in hand. And presumably you need little reminder of how our dreadful run continued through March and even into the start of April, with the 3-0 defeat at Goodison Park.
[Note: Some people misconstrued the tweet as suggesting that the Southampton game was the cause of the subsequent bad run. That’s wasn’t my intended argument – rather, the game simply marked a turning point, with form dipping for a myriad of reasons.]
Hopefully, however, in a couple of weeks we’ll be able to look back on the loss to Everton as the season’s final turning point. After that game many of us believed that seven straight wins would be required to rescue the season and end up with fourth place and the FA Cup. We have started that attempted run fairly well, with four consecutive victories.
Yet Everton’s relative collapse, gaining zero points from Palace, Southampton and City, means that the final two league games are academic. So can we afford to let them slip?
I’m no so sure. Arsene is, I feel, a manager who leans on confidence and momentum perhaps even more than other top-level managers. His recent comments seem to emphasise this point.
“The team went through a bad patch with a lack of confidence, because some results went against us… so you have to slowly rebuild that with results and with resilience,” he said after the home win against West Ham. He was, admittedly, referring specifically to the forwards on this occasion, but could easily be referring to the whole team per se.
“It improves the confidence of the team. Saturday and tonight improves the confidence of the team,” Wenger also commented, referring to the win against West Ham.
“Game-by-game, they look strong and convincing now,” he said after the last win, at home to Newcastle. “You could see there is a harmony in the team again and our fluency is strong.”
The manager and his players often appear to be treading on thin ice when it comes to the sentiment around the club – both in the stadium itself, and on the usual internet lurking grounds such as Twitter. A single goal conceded, let alone a game lost, can bring out the loudest of detractors while silencing the loyalists.
It’s a tough environment to work within, but with the lucrative recent comebacks of Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil, a palpable – albeit fragile – feelgood factor has returned to the club. The boss will know that strong performances against West Brom and Norwich will be crucial if we want to walk up Wembley Way with a spring in our steps. Going into the final on the back of six straight wins could provide the kind of momentum and confidence that makes all the difference on the day.