By Jay Jaffa
Arsene Wenger strode into the press room wearing a stern look but spoke frankly and confidently about Arsenal’s performance at Loftus Road on Saturday, after watching his side nudge closer to Champions League football with a narrow 1-0 win over QPR.
“We didn’t give many chances away, but played a little bit conscious that the points were vital,” he said, dissecting a display that probably had the travelling support more on edge than anyone else.
Arsenal exploded out of the blocks, flattening QPR's hopes of a Premier League swansong inside 20 seconds as Theo Walcott - “a much better player, [who] has improved his finishing” - latched onto Mikel Arteta’s cute through ball to sidefoot past Robert Green.
From here they controlled possession in spells, but had to remain focused as QPR inevitably searched for a route back into the game. Playing for pride, as Reading showed at Fulham earlier in the day, can often muster unforeseen results and performances, as Wenger acknowledged.
“Sometimes when a team is going down they just start playing well. We needed a special focus to get the win,” he said.
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Wenger’s side have lost a ruthless edge, perhaps inevitable after Robin van Persie’s summer departure, and they were grateful to Wojciech Szczesny for his marvellous fingertip save from Loic Remy’s precise 18-yard shot as Arsenal preserved their lead.
At the other end, concerns over the form of Lukas Podolski continue to gain traction. The German played in his favoured central role for the second game in a row but was utterly abject, moping across the defensive line, neither offering a ball over the top or an option to feet. There was no focal point.
This criticism may seem at odds with a string of results that have been hugely impressive though. Wenger proudly emphasised his side’s run of form and this win made it eight games unbeaten since the loss at White Hart Lane back in early March.
This was their fourth consecutive away victory - the first time they have achieved the feat since November 2010 - and Per Mertesacker and Co. can proudly boast the best away defensive record in the division (they have conceded just 14 goals).
As Wenger explained: “Any mistake would have been detrimental but defensively we were very sound.”
With two games to go, Arsenal know what they must do, yet that can often be the biggest fear with Wenger’s side. Last season for example, after a run of nine wins in 10 games, the Gunners leapfrogged rivals Tottenham and looked certain to finish third. Then, a run of three points from four games left them needing to win on the final day - which to their credit they did at West Brom.
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Coincidentally, it was a loss at home to Wigan that sparked that worrying run of form last year as they were outplayed, losing 2-1. Their next game is, ominously, Wigan, before a final day slog to Newcastle - another venue where tensions have run high.
With relegation confirmed, QPR played without fear; the burden lifted after Stoke put them out of their misery last weekend. Fearless football can be dangerous - but Wenger must ensure his players realise how much more dangerous teams can be when everything is at stake.
After their 3-2 win at West Brom, Wigan are again on an upward curve just at the right time. How often they peak in April and May. And as they have shown in north London before - it is a happy hunting ground, a place they can express themselves and play their attacking brand of football.
There can be no room for complacency. Not now, not with Tottenham and Chelsea breathing down Arsenal’s neck. One slip up, one missed tackle can be the difference between Champions League and Europa League football.
Wenger though, is an experienced campaigner - some may say too experienced when it comes to toiling with the nuances of scraping a top four place; the minimum of a club of Arsenal's size - but he said all the right things at Loftus Road.
“[If] Tottenham draw or win - it’s the same, we have to win our games. We have to focus on what is needed from us in the game. We are up for it - ready for it and the team is highly focused.”
It appears only the players could get complacent from here.
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