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Opportunity awaits if Arsenal can master a new kind of Premier League pressure


As Emile Smith Rowe lashed a low finish into the bottom corner of the West Ham United net on Wednesday night, the Arsenal fans’ cheers were no ordinary celebrations. Mixed in would have been relief, that a narrow lead was not going to turn into an undeserved draw late on, but also excited optimism at what might lie ahead.

That 2-0 win saw the Gunners jump above the Hammers, and Manchester United, into fourth place in the Premier League table – a now extremely open fight for the much-coveted final Champions League spot.

Places one to three look wrapped up already, albeit with the order to be decided, but there’s a fascinating scrap between at least four sides shaping up for the other, plus varying levels of Europa action in 2022.

When Arsenal’s 20/21 campaign effectively came to an end in April with back-to-back defeats to Everton, domestically, and Villarreal, in Europe, it was a moment of real disappointment for Mikel Arteta that there would be no continental action to look forward to. He berated his players after that defeat to the Toffees in particular, not merely for the loss but the manner of it.

“I’m concerned about the way we played and not about the structure but actually how we executed what we wanted and it wasn’t good enough,” he said.

“If we find excuses we are never going to get it right.”

The plan, or lack thereof for much of the last campaign, was an obvious barrier in so many games: aimless, toothless, all too easily beaten.

It looks a lot more cohesive and structured now, in and out of possession, and crucially there’s an end product. The quartet of youthful attackers who are rotating behind the striker are playing a role of ever-increasing importance, with Gabriel Martinelli the latest to find form and offer supporters reason to get excited.

The execution of that plan on a more regular basis means they are into fourth – and there’s a chance to open something of a gap down to their challengers due to matches already being called off ahead of the weekend.

A trip to Leeds feels far from daunting for a team who have secured back-to-back wins with successive clean sheets, while Marcelo Bielsa’s side have won one in seven and conceded that many goals in their last outing against Manchester City.

Maybe more than the actual task of outscoring the league’s third-worst defence who will be missing at least seven regular starters, the real challenge is of overcoming Arsenal’s own recent tendencies: to choke at moments of opportunity and allow potentially significant steps forward to slip away.

Only as recently as the last international break, supporters were building a similarly optimistic head of steam after four straight wins and going 10 unbeaten in total. These pages detailed how the challenge was not against the low-profile likes of relegation strugglers and lower-league cup opponents, but the teams they aspired to match or chase when the pressure was suddenly on, such as those upcoming against Liverpool and Manchester United.

Three defeats in four followed.

But bouncing back from the Everton loss in particular has shown a level of composure and mettle in the side and a measure of control from Arteta in the dugout – in his gameplan, if not in his actual touchline antics which frequently border on the absurdly overexcitable.

There is, from this point, a clear path to continued improvement. Consistency is all-important in the race for European spots, but without any regular midweek competition (after Christmas, at least) to distract them and deter from training ground preparations, missing out this year could be the very difference between themselves, West Ham and Man United which makes the telling difference.

Leeds, bereft of confidence and cohesion right now, are there for the taking.

So too is fourth and a return to Champions League football, if only Arsenal can break their own mental barriers which have proven so prohibitive until now.

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