It's tough at the top, even with a game in hand, and is about to become tougher, according to as shrewd an observer as Arsne Wenger, the manager of the Premier League leaders. "We go into a period from November to March of what I call the 'tough league', where everybody plays for something," he said ahead of Arsenal's visit today to struggling Middlesbrough. "Some people are in crisis, like Newcastle; some teams are scared to go down. In March, it eases off again when some teams are secure, you win easier points, but this is a period where every game you have to be really up for it. There are seven or eight teams within four or five points and all of them are scared to go down."
Gareth Southgate's Middlesbrough are right in the thick of that group, experiencing tougher times than most after two wins from 15 games, although Wenger expects a more cerebral challenge from them than the one presented by the previous two opponents, Aston Villa and Newcastle. "Many teams try to stop us by being physical but they were very, very direct," he said.
"Villa had a colossus in [John] Carew who they played off, and Newcastle tried more to get in behind us. Defensively we've been sound, I just feel we lost our fluency a little bit, let them upset our style. But I don't think we can be bullied now, I'm not scared of that. Middlesbrough play a different style. With [Adam] Johnson and [Stewart] Downing they cross a lot and Southgate wants to play a more mobile game than a direct one."
At Villa Park, Arsenal played football in the first half of a quality rarely seen in England, then had to hold on for victory with impressive resilience, forged by the new partnership of William Gallas and Kolo Tour. The way in which Villa got at them after half-time suggested a method of opposition taken up four days later by Newcastle's Sam Allardyce: "Set out to stop them doing what they want, then capitalise on their frailties."
Identifying "frailties" may have been optimistic since, as Wenger says, bullying no longer works. But Newcastle closed his team down quickly, pressured them all over the pitch and were able to score an equalising goal as a result. That stemmed from a mistake by Eduardo da Silva, Arsenal's least effective player, whose place must be in danger on today's return to the North-east, even with Alexander Hleb, Mathieu Flamini, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie all still hors de combat. Bringing in Denilson as an extra midfield player, with Tomas Rosicky playing in the position from which Hleb destroyed Villa, just off Emmanuel Adebayor, looks a tempting option.
Last season's visit to the Riverside for a 1-1 draw early in February marked, in retrospect, the end of an epoch for Arsenal, bringing as it did the last of Thierry Henry's 226 goals for the club. A month later he was out for the rest of the season and Arsenal were out of four competitions, yet the seeds were being sown for this season's dramatic flowering as other players, young and (not so) old, blossomed once out of Henry's shadow. From the start of April and three successive League defeats, they did not lose again until a fortnight ago in Seville, when Wenger admits he may have picked too weak a team, costing them the leadership of their Champions' League group.
"I feel we gave up a big advantage, partly because of my selection, I don't deny that. But I had many players on the edge after the internationals and I had to make a choice, because I knew we had three away games. I should not even have played Fabregas, because I lost him in that game. But I want to finish top of the group still."
That means defeating Steaua Bucharest at the Emirates on Wednesday and hoping Seville do not win away to Slavia Prague. If Arsenal finish only second, they will face a formidable list of potential opponents in the knockout stage including Barcelona, both Milan clubs and probably Real Madrid (though not any other English team). Tougher and tougher. But when the going gets tough....