Wenger described the Christmas programme as a ‘good opportunity to show that we are much better than people think we are’, and his team began it with a 2-1 win over a very poor QPR side, despite seeing Olivier Giroud sent off for clashing with Nedum Onuoha in the second half – and despite giving away a late penalty.
The victory, which moves Arsenal to sixth in the table, at least gives his players a chance to take up their manager’s challenge – and three points at Upton Park would almost certainly see them start the New Year in the top four, a significant statistic given a very difficult start to the campaign which at one stage saw fans calling for Wenger to resign.
So on the face of it there is hope at the Emirates. The return of Giroud (despite his red card here) and Mathieu Debuchy has already proved positive, while Theo Walcott, David Ospinna and Hector Bellerin were all on the bench against Rangers after returning to fitness and Tomas Rosicky was available for the first time since November, and scored on his comeback to add to Alexis Sanchez’s excellent opener.
In addition, Laurent Koscielny is likely to be in the squad at Upton Park tomorrow, Mesut Ozil and Mikel Arteta are expected back in January, and Aaron Ramsey is pencilled in for Southampton on New Year’s Day.
“With the players we have to come back we will have a much stronger squad than we had for the past two months,” insisted Wenger.
In fairness it is very difficult to judge Arsenal’s future based on this game, because QPR – who defended like a non-league team in the FA Cup during a first-half barrage – were so bad that anything other than an Arsenal victory was almost impossible to imagine. There is a reason, after all, why Harry Redknapp’s side have lost every single away game in the Premier League this season.
But even then, and even with Sanchez outstanding, Arsenal’s brittle confidence and lack of concentration hovered uncomfortably in the air during what should have been a routine victory.
It came to the fore first of all when Giroud simply lost his temper following a penalty-box collision, and inexplicably squared up to Onuoha — appearing to push his forehead towards the QPR defender.
The red card that followed was inevitable and deserved. Then, with the home side already 2-0 up, Debuchy needlessly stuck out a foot as Junior Hoilett weaved into the area, and gave away a penalty that set up a nervy finale in match that Arsenal should have been winning by a landslide.
So is the glass of Christmas mulled wine half-full or half-empty for Arsenal? Not an easy one to answer after a nervy victory against the worst away team in the country; and as always much may depend on Wenger’s success in the January transfer window, and whether – as no doubt Arsenal fans fear – the return of so many injured players next month makes him more reluctant, rather than more likely, to spend on improving his squad when every Gunner in the country is screaming for reinforcements in defence.
They are heading into New Year in north London with a new hero in Alexis Sanchez, new hope in the treatment room and and new goals for 2015 — but still mulling over some very old problems.