It is the time of the season to be playing teams sitting comfortably in mid-table, yet, in a Premier League that Arsène Wenger calls the “most level and least predictable since I have been in England”, such opponents barely exist.
At this stage last year, the gap between top and bottom was 44 points, even before Portsmouth had their 10 deducted. Now it is 33 and a side like Newcastle United, who at Saturday lunchtime were in the top half, now find themselves four points off relegation.
After Arsenal had recovered a two-goal deficit but lost ground on Manchester United, Wenger pointed out how tough it can be playing teams at the wrong end, and that the trouble for all the title contenders this season is that there are so many of them.
The equally experienced Roy Hodgson, unbeaten in his four games as manager of West Bromwich Albion yet still stuck in the relegation battle, added:
“Nobody has been left behind and as a result the middle of the table becomes almost non-existent. You’re just talking about one conglomerate of teams, all of whom can go from next to bottom to mid-table with one victory. Its snakes and ladders, it really is. Arsenal today at 2-0, if they’d have been sixth or seventh in the table with nothing to play for, maybe they’d have been a bit less aggressive to get back into the game. But they’re playing for the title.”
There are too many of those on the horizon for his liking in “a bad programme”: the next four opponents are all from the top half of the table, starting with the club who sacked him two months ago, Liverpool, which should at least offer extra incentive, however much a proud man denies it.
Hodgson will have his team prepared, his players having confirmed that they work constantly on shape, pattern of play and any perceived opposition weakness. James Morrison, off the field for almost ten minutes on Saturday to have stitches in a deep head wound, said later they had been primed to attack Arsenal’s “weak link at the back”, Steven Reid adding that his run to head the opening goal from Chris Brunt’s perfectly delivered corner was something regularly worked on in training. Not even Hodgson, however, could have told Peter Odemwingie “chase a long ball up in the middle and their goalkeeper will charge out of his area, bump into the centre-half, and miss it completely to leave you with a tap-in”.
That was how Albion took a two-goal lead, leaving Manuel Almunia and Sebastian Squillaci as red as an Arsenal shirt and Jens Lehmann, back on the substitutes’ bench and no buddy of Almunia’s, possibly stifling a smirk. Wenger, having hinted in an after-match television interview at the possibility of a goalkeeping change, pulled back slightly when meeting the press, saying only of the 41-year-old Lehmann: “He’s like a guy who’s not been involved for a long time but has kept his body fit. He needs a little bit of decision-making and practice in goal.” Well most Arsenal fans believe Almunia needs the practice as well.
Wenger admits that the setbacks of the past fortnight, which began with another defensive calamity between a different goalkeeper and centre-half in the Carling Cup final, have taken a toll: “It’s a massive blow. We had four targets and suddenly we have only one. So the pressure increases on that one.”
Bearing that in mind, he considered that this highly entertaining draw yielded a psychologically valuable point. It was obtained with a terrific goal by the unpredictable Andrei Arshavin, who then crossed for Nicklas Bendtner – one of two extra strikers sent on in the second half to turn the ball back for Robin van Persie’s scrambled equaliser. The match statistics confirmed it was the least Arsenal deserved, woeful defending or not.