Nearly four weeks have passed since Arsenal last played at the Emirates and there will not be many fond memories of that occasion. They toiled against Burnley and, in keeping with current fashion, ended with 10 men. Fine margins like this are supposed to matter when you are fighting for the top four: Sean Dyche’s side had only kept one away clean sheet in the league all season so it was surprising that they held out for a point in relative comfort.
Arsenal were sixth then, just as they are now, but the picture is markedly different. The scales have tipped in their favour. A win at Molineux in their only game of the intervening period helped but the shortcomings of those around them have done just as much to define the mood. Since the draw with Burnley, the two teams above them and the pair below have played a total of 10 games and amassed 12 points. Manchester United, West Ham, Tottenham and Wolves remain squarely in the Champions League race but, despite barely kicking a ball for a month, Arsenal find themselves in the box seat.
They have three games in hand on United and West Ham, who are four and two points ahead of them respectively. Brentford are Saturday’s visitors and it feels a long time since, in the opening match of the campaign, a Covid-hit Arsenal were pummelled in west London with Ivan Toney claiming: “I don’t see them winning anything any time soon.” The Bees’ striker may technically be right, but given Arsenal’s past half-decade Mikel Arteta would be perfectly entitled to go along with Arsène Wenger’s pronouncement in 2012 that fourth place would count as a “trophy”.
Arsenal looked weak that night at Brentford Community Stadium, cowering under a barrage of set pieces and direct balls. It seemed a familiar tale but they have become a side with backbone and Arteta agrees that his players are mentally tougher than six months ago.
“Defeats are a big part of that mental toughness,” he said. “They prepare you, they make you tougher. [The team] understand the suffering you go through when you lose a football match and you have critics, when everybody is questioning you. You have to fight against that situation: that is what creates mental toughness as well.”
Arteta wants Arsenal to be punchy, as long as they stay within acceptable limits. That, in itself, has caused plenty of discussion since Gabriel Martinelli’s unusual sending-off at Wolves. It was their fourth red card in six games across all competitions and the 15th of the manager’s 26-month reign. Arsenal are not a dirty side; more one prone to fleeting lapses of judgment that are natural in a young squad that probably needs to operate near the edge to compete. The theories about refereeing bias and conspiracies circulating among sections of the fanbase are nonsensical, even if the consistency of top-flight officials has patently been imperfect, but Arteta is canny enough to know a them-against-us mindset can work in Arsenal’s favour.
“One hundred per cent,” he said when asked whether a bunker mentality would bring his squad closer together. “I want the team to feel they have the tools and the right mindset to face anything in front of us. Whether it’s through injuries, bad decisions, through whatever way it comes, the team has to be prepared; that mental toughness is something you have to work on every single day.”
One element of context against Brentford, before any new controversies come into play, is the fact Arsenal have little wriggle room where squad depth is concerned. If anyone had to be suspended for a match at this point Martinelli was probably the best candidate, simply because Emile Smith Rowe is a more than satisfactory replacement on the left flank. The deputy option would be a step down in virtually any other position and there is a sense that, despite their favourable standing and the excellence of their first-choice side, the season will stand or fall on keeping players available.
It is likely someone will need to step up from the fringes and Arteta still holds hope that Nicolas Pépé, who finished 2020-21 with a bang but has played 24 minutes in the Premier League since 18 October, can be the difference-maker Unai Emery thought he had purchased in 2019. “Since he has come back from Afcon I think I have seen a different Nico,” claimed Arteta, who has made similar pronouncements in the past. “He had a brilliant end of the season last year. He can replicate that. We need him at his best because everybody is going to contribute. We are a really short squad at the moment and hopefully he has understood that we want to play him.”
Brentford, desperate for a win to fend off the threat of a relegation battle, will be rugged opponents. “We know the stage of the season we are at and what the aim is,” Arteta said. Arsenal may have been able to watch top-four rivals smooth their path in recent weeks, but their tight-knit unit now has to prove its worth.