Dortmund test a truer measure of Arsenal’s state of play
Arsene Wenger aware their campaign on two fronts has been confined to the foothills thus far
For Arsenal the season’s biggest test to date is at hand. Arsene Wenger’s team may be top of the Premier League, beaten just once in any competition since the start of March, and performing at times with fluidity in attack, but Wenger is well aware their campaign on two fronts has so far been confined to the foothills.
Tonight’s meeting with Borussia Dortmund at the Emirates represents a significant step up towards the kind of peak that has proved beyond them in recent years.
It is a measure of Wenger’s enduring intensity that it is hard to imagine a more appropriate and well-received birthday gift than a visit from the summer’s Champions League finalists.
Wenger is 64 today – “I get cards, phone calls but, honestly, if nobody reminds, I forget” – but his thoughts remain, as ever, entirely wrapped up in immediate footballing matters.
“We will know more about ourselves after Dortmund, at the end of November,” he said after taking training before a match he believes is a “litmus test” for this Arsenal team.
“The real test is in front of us. We can’t be triumphant at the moment. We have big targets, big teams and big fixtures in front of us.”
Indeed they do. Back-to-back Champions League fixtures against Dortmund is an intriguing prospect, not least when victory in either match will all but guarantee progress to the knockout stages.
Beyond this, November looks set to provide a momentum-defining run of game.
After tonight Arsenal will play Crystal Palace away, followed by Chelsea and Liverpool at home, Dortmund away and Manchester United away, a vertiginous shift of trajectory after a relatively kind opening two months of the season, defeat by Aston Villa and victory at home to Spurs aside.
But this is, after all, a team with effectively one working striker, with a manager who again emphasised he feels no urge to embroil himself in the transfer market in January, citing the fact that Nicklas Bendtner is “again playing well” as comfort enough for now.
As Wenger said: “We have always had teams who played good football. But you can play for 37 championship games very well and lose the decisive 38th game. You will then forget the 37 games you played well.”
There is also a timely reminder here that, for all Arsenal’s winning start to their European campaign with four straight wins to date including the preliminary rounds, progress is by no means assured in a relentlessly high-grade group.
“If we get out of the group we will have a chance to get to the final, but at the moment it’s too early. We’re in the most difficult group in Europe, with Napoli, Dortmund and Marseille. The job is in front of us to get out of it.”
If Wenger was in expansive Gallic philosopher mode before his 64th birthday – “what’s important in your life is that you have happy moments. And for me the games are a succession of possible happy moments” – Arsenal’s chances of another happy moment against Dortmund have been adversely affected by the absence of Mathieu Flamini, who will be rested after his concussion against Norwich, but should be fit for the weekend.
It is a major blow against a team with routinely devastating speed and penetration on the counterattack, who are currently just a single Bundesliga point behind Bayern Munich, Wenger’s team of the season so far..
For this Arsenal team, heirs to that 17-year Wenger-ball legacy, there is a sense for now of yet another fully-loaded November about to kick into gear.