'Serene' Arsenal have the true quality of champions with the ability to win games ugly
The Gunners were frustrated by Fulham on Saturday before finally coming through 2-0
Rene Meulensteen may be embroiled in a relegation battle this season, but the Fulham manager spent the last six seasons contesting the title as a key member of Manchester United’s coaching staff. He is thus well equipped to assess the value of Arsenal’s humdrum 2-0 victory over his team at the Emirates on Saturday.
“What’s the secret? Keep winning games ugly if you have to,” he said. “Those 1-0 wins where you do not play so well, those are the points that matter in the end.”
Arsenal won their last two matches 2-0 and (at Villa Park last week) 2-1, but they merit Meulensteen’s “ugly” status. This was a frequently laboured performance by the Premier League leaders.
They were rescued by Santi Cazorla, who capped a lively display with two goals in five minutes. “This season we’re much more consistent, much more solid, especially when we’re on top of a game,” said the Spaniard. “That’s something that has changed from last season. We’re much better at closing out games.”
Arsène Wenger agreed. “We have improved on that front,” he said. “The consistency of the results of the team since January 2013 has strengthened that maturity and the fact that we are defensively more stable gives us more of a serene attitude. That helps a lot.”
Defensive stability is also what Meulensteen is searching for. A reshaped back four, with Dan Burn recalled from Birmingham City to make his Fulham debut three years after joining from Darlington, kept a clean sheet in the FA Cup in midweek and so was retained. Another shut-out was beyond them but at least Fulham did not fold. They have conceded 48 goals and have a minus-26 goal difference, both the worst in the division.
“We focus on making sure that we are defensively more solid, because we strongly believe that if we get more clean sheets that will eventually keep us up,” said Meulensteen. “We have enough quality to win other games and to create chances to score. We are starting to look more solid.”
The irony is that Meulensteen is known as an attack-minded coach. So is Wenger but he too is increasingly concerned with defending. He believes if his team keep a clean sheet they will win because they are sure to score. Much of the credit goes to the defensive axis of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker, but defending is a team responsibility and that finally seems to have been drummed in at Arsenal. Wenger added: “Our defensive stability shows the solidarity in our squad because everyone helps out and works for each other.”
Nevertheless, it is a forward Wenger seeks this transfer window, cover for Olivier Giroud, who looked jaded. Though Nicklas Bendtner and Yaya Sanogo are both nearing fitness, Wenger is thought to be pursuing the loan signing of the Montenegrin Mirko Vucinic from Juventus, with Schalke’s Julian Draxler another option. “We are open to strengthening our squad if it’s possible, ideally another striker,” he admitted.
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