Buoyed by a comfortable 4-0 win and the sight of a team that looks fully functional again, Arsène Wenger was wary of falling into the trap of getting carried away. Might Arsenal go on a run now? Could they sneak along the rails to catch the leaders close to the finishing line? “We have to be realistic and just prepare for the next game and not dream too much,” he said. “When I say be realistic we have to look behind, over our shoulders, as well. Manchester City, Manchester United, West Ham are chasing. Let’s look over our shoulders and also chase if we can.”
Such pragmatism is reasonable. Wenger has experience of guiding a team through a late charge to the title from his early days in north London. He knows what it takes. He knows the unexpected twists that can be decisive. “To find a team who clicks at the right moment, sometimes you have all kinds of reasons,” he points out.
He recalls the series of wins that set in motion a Premier League triumph in his first full season in England in 1997-98. He tells the tale of a game in hand that came in bizarre circumstances – a match away to Wimbledon was originally abandoned because the electricity failed in suspicious circumstances linked to a betting syndicate. When it was replayed in the spring, Arsenal’s match-winner came from an unlikely source – the Liberian squad player Christopher Wreh. “Then we won at Manchester United, and suddenly everybody thought it was possible. Unfortunately, this time we have to fight with two teams.”
Wenger acknowledges there has been a click in his current team that occurred without being part of the master plan. A better balanced midfield and a punchier forward line are making a big difference. Since Mohamed Elneny came into the team, his combination with Francis Coquelin has given Arsenal a much more secure platform. The vigour of Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi has freshened up the attack. All three players were not a big part of the picture until recently.
Having set his squad a target to win their remaining Premier League games, Wenger took encouragement from the one chalked off on Saturday as a seemingly distracted Watford succumbed easily to goals from a revived Alexis Sánchez, the promising Iwobi, the adventurous Héctor Bellerín and the substitute Theo Walcott.
“I feel we want to win our games and see what happens. It is too difficult to say any more than that. We have only one target now,” Wenger explained. “I believe this team has the right mentality. I have had many teams in my life and this team is top quality. They have gone through a bad period but when they play like that, it shows that mentally, they are pure.”
If Wenger finds the clarity of the situation hopeful, his Watford counterpart was disappointed to analyse the consequences of a muddled performance that contrasted with their focus to win at the Emirates when these teams met recently in the FA Cup.
Watford have been stuck on 37 points for four league games, and Quique Sánchez Flores was emphatic that it is not enough to be safe. “No!” he exclaimed. “I don’t know how many we need. We are fighting maybe for one month and a half against these thoughts. I think it’s a very big mistake, it would be an amazing mistake to think everything is done. If it was done, we would need the necessary ambition to want a little bit more, always. More, more, more to keep working very hard.”
The upcoming FA Cup semi-final does not compensate for a challenging period in the league. “When you lose, you don’t have any compensation,” he said. “We are angry, we need to think about that. It is hard because it is something that is in the air. It’s impossible every week to pass through the office and it’s all ‘tickets for the FA Cup, tickets for the FA Cup’. What happened? We play in the league tomorrow.”