LONDON -- Three observations from the Emirates as Arsenal held on to top spot in the Premier League with a 2-0 win over Cardiff.
1. More than a routine win
A few minutes after the final whistle at the Emirates, Per Mertesacker gave defensive partner Laurent Koscielny a hearty hug as a number of Arsenal players defiantly celebrated with the crowd. This may have seemed a routine fixture, but it was no routine win. Clearly, the 2-0 victory meant a lot, and it may yet have meaning in the title race, too.
The bottom line is this: Just at the point that Arsenal seemed set to drop points in an eminently winnable home game, and while both their main title rivals had already claimed victories away from home, they managed to grasp the nettle. Even more conspicuously, it was the third consecutive game in which they’d conspired to claim full points despite performances that were far less than complete. That, at the very least, displays significant character.
Of course, the final scores and the position they put Arsenal in at the top of the table only tell part of the story. It would be blinkered to say there were not at least some minor concerns about those displays, as a more tired-looking team left their eventual wins later and later. Arsenal did look notably leggy in this match, and it was obvious that they weren’t exactly opening Cardiff City up in the manner they did to so many other teams between August and November.
Before the late flurry, which did admittedly come from a performance that picked up a lot from a poor first half, Arsene Wenger’s side didn’t exactly create all too many opportunities. Jack Wilshere hit the frame of the goal; Cardiff left Mertesacker free in the box twice and the German should have done much better with his headers.
In the end, it was almost as if Arsenal claimed the win through sheer force rather than finesse, which was emphasised by the plundered manner in which substitute Nicklas Bendtner powered the ball into the net.
The consequence of that, for the moment, depends on your outlook. On the one hand, it may point to a smaller squad than either Manchester City or Chelsea gradually flagging. On the other, it may just be a temporary storm that Wenger has done so well to weather.
We’ll find out for certain over the next few months, but right now, Arsenal have put themselves in the best possible position. That is to their huge credit, and there can be no disputing they will have a huge say in this title race come May.
2. Striking it lucky
What may encourage an even louder say in the trophy is what Arsenal do in the January transfer window. Far from solving their issues up front, this game only put them into further focus, not least because of the injury that Bendtner suffered in the aftermath of his goal. Wenger confirmed that the Dane will be missing for a few weeks, although the Arsenal manager will surely seek to add another option to complement Olivier Giroud in that time.
Without the French striker, and obviously Mesut Ozil, there was a notable lack of link-up when they got the ball in the final third. That was never more evident than just before halftime, when Lukas Podolski offered his sole contribution to the opening period in actually blocking a goal-bound Theo Walcott strike. When the ball came to Podolski again in the 62nd minute, he could only play the return straight out of play. The German may have just come from a significant amount of time injured, but he will never be a main No. 9.
It wasn’t long after that wayward pass that Wenger hauled off Podolski for Bendtner, who immediately played like he had a point to prove and did just that. It was a genuinely admirable moment after such a difficult recent time, but reflective of the Dane’s misfortune that he immediately got injured.
Wenger smiled about the substitute’s contribution afterward. The Arsenal manager said he never lost faith in Bendtner and revealed that he told him before the game that the striker is now at the level Wenger wants him.
The one problem is that it's not quite the level required to regularly win in a title race. Bendtner should ultimately be no more than a dependable backup striker, filling a role similar to the one Wenger used the likes of Christopher Wreh in the past. For this season, and this title challenge, Arsenal need something in between the Dane and Giroud.
3. Not all chaos at Cardiff
After this game, as the talk grew of when exactly Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment as Cardiff manager would be confirmed, Wenger smiled that the Welsh side “played like they knew he was in the stands.” There could be no mistaking that, as one of the most conspicuous sights of the day was the former Manchester United striker sat beside Cardiff owner Vincent Tan.
What he would have seen offered plenty of encouragement, as Cardiff came so creditably close to a fine away result. The team is well structured, and have a defensive stability about them that is missing in so many other sides in the bottom half of the table. The centre-halves, in particular, were superb today.
“Cardiff have the basic ingredients to survive in the Premier League,” Wenger enthused, but with one caveat. “The one thing you would say, if you look at their record, they need to add a few more goals.”
There would seem few better candidates for that, and not just because of Solskjaer’s own history. He is renowned as one of the most astute young managers in the game, and for all the controversy of the Vincent Tan regime at Cardiff, this does look like one of his smarter moves.
On the other hand, it’s also almost a no-lose situation for Solskjaer himself. Even if he fails, the context will be the chaos of Tan. Cardiff look equipped to avoid the chaos of a relegation fight.