Arsenal 1 Newcastle 0: Arsenal may be two points clear at the top of the table and focusing on winning a first title in 12 years but even Arsene Wenger is struggling to answer the question on everyone’s lips: Is this the worst Premier League ever — or the best?
Wenger’s side finally gained breathing space in what has been a remarkable season by beating Newcastle 1-0 at the weekend on a day when nearest title rivals Leicester City were held at home by Bournemouth.
Just that last sentence — imagine reading it five years ago — sums up the way the Premier League has been transformed in recent times, with increased television revenues seemingly closing the gap between smaller clubs and the traditional giants.
Bournemouth, who have played in League 2 during the Premier League era, have already beaten Chelsea and Man United and are joined in the top ten by Watford, West Ham, Crystal Palace, and Stoke. United, meanwhile, have lost at home to Norwich.
Even Arsenal’s victory over Newcastle, third bottom in the Premier League and staring at a relegation battle, was not simple; in fact the Londoners were outplayed for long periods and fortunate to take three points thanks to Laurent Koscielny’s close-range finish from a 72nd-minute Mesut Ozil corner that had been headed on by Olivier Giroud.
“I was very impressed with Newcastle, they are a good side,” insisted Wenger. “When you see Sissoko and Wijnaldum taking the ball, Mitrovic and the quality of his ball protection, and Janmaat every time he goes forward — there is power and quality there. It shows how close the Premier League is this season. I went into the dressing room at half-time and saw the results — and there were no goals anywhere. That shows you that the teams are very tight, quality-wise. Maybe we have to analyse a bit deeper what is going on, because it is surprising that everyone can lose everywhere.”
Wenger believes the change in dynamics is not only down to finance, although clearly the latest deal for television rights has given clubs such as Bournemouth the potential to bring in players they could never have dreamed of attracting in the past. He also cites improvements in coaching, tactics, and fitness, saying: “The difference of the players at the big clubs and those who are at clubs which are financially a little bit smaller is not massive. I believe as well that organisation-wise everybody has improved.
In the past you won games physically in the last 20 minutes when you were superior technically. That’s the not the case any more — because in the last 20 minutes when you go forward the team against you, in transition, has always the resources to come out and kill you.
“Even the players who come on — they always have the quality to finish you off.
“That maybe explains it. It’s something that’s new. The players on the bench of the smaller clubs are today good as well. And that’s a big change.” What is encouraging for Wenger, however, is that even in a new Premier League era in which every game is a serious test, Arsenal are finding a way to maintain a level of consistency that has deserted them in the past.
The 4-0 defeat at Southampton over Christmas stands out as a result which could have derailed their title challenge, but in fact Arsenal come out of the festive period with nine points from a possible 12 and lead the table going into next weekend’s FA Cup action (Wenger’s side face Sunderland at home).
Victory over Newcastle was achieved despite a largely miserable and disjointed performance and in spite of a spirited and powerful display from the visitors who left London wondering how on earth they hadn’t won the game.
Petr Cech was one of the reasons, making three crucial saves from Wijnaldum alone, but it was the mental grit of the entire Arsenal team which impressed Wenger most and suggests they have real chances in 2016.
“It’s another aspect of your team which is tested in a game like that. It’s the mental aspect when you fight, don’t concede a goal, don’t panic, and wait for your chance,” said the Frenchman. “We were more questioned on that aspect over the years than on the way we play football. So it’s good to win sometimes like that. In the past we could play everybody off the park on our day but when you had to dig deep it was a bit more difficult. This team is different — we have more experience now.”
If Arsenal do go on to win the title then nobody at the Emirates will be too concerned about how difficult it was to achieve — or spend too much time worrying about the diminishing quality of their rivals. But Wenger remains fascinated by the debate. He said: “The question people ask at the moment is ‘Is this the worst Premier League ever or is it the best ever?’ For me, you can go both ways.”
Cech 7; Bellerin 6, Mertesacker 6, Koscielny 7, Monreal 6; Flamini 6, Ramsey 6; Oxlade-Chamberlain 5 (Campbell 70; 6), Ozil 7, Walcott 6 (Gibbs 81); Giroud 7 (Chambers 88).
Subs not used:
Gabriel, Ospina, Iwobi, Reine-Adelaide.
Elliot 6; Janmaat 7, Coloccini 7, Mbemba 6, Dummett 7; Tiote 6 (De Jong 87), Colback 7 (Thauvin 80); Sissoko 7, Wijnaldum 8, Perez 6; Mitrovic 7.
Subs not used:
Gouffran, Lascelles, Darlow, Toney, Mbabu.
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