Gunners lurch upwards again
© AFP

Arsenal used to be a by-word for stability in English football, but this season has already featured more dizzying highs and stultifying lows than the average rollercoaster.

A week ago, the Gunners approached their meeting with Manchester United with furrowed brows and butterflies flitting around their stomachs. A catastrophic late capitulation to Tottenham had thrown away two more points on home soil, while a defeat at Stoke was clouded in acrimony, with manager Arsene Wenger claiming two of his players had been deliberately injured.

For perhaps the first time in his 12-year tenure, pointed questions were being asked of the Frenchman's managerial ethos, which demands that success be delivered with a swagger. Another set-back against United at the Emirates, and the murmurs of a discontent would have swelled to a fully-fledged roar.

Then, as suddenly as it had erupted, the doubts died down. United were vanquished 2-1 in a breathless, brilliant spectacle which encapsulated all that is great about Wenger's purist philosophy.

The club's largely teenage second string the delivered an encore with the kind of coruscating performance against Wigan in the League Cup which gives the lie to the old adage that youth is wasted on the young. The crisis was averted and Wenger was once more being hailed as a mastermind.

The Arsenal manager would have afforded himself a wry smile at that. He has been around long enough to know that the club's wobble in form did not represent an indelible black mark against his name, just as he knows two impressive victories do not mean he is above proper scrutiny.

Arsenal's mini-revival at least means they can enter Saturday's encounter with Aston Villa in a perkier frame of mind. The Midlanders had been tipped to overhaul the Gunners in the race for UEFA Champions League qualification after a turbo-charged start to the season, but consecutive defeats have checked the momentum of Martin O'Neill's side and given Wenger a three-point cushion.

Character
More importantly, there is a renewed confidence about Arsenal following their triumph over United. "There was a lot of pressure on us but we showed our character that day," captain William Gallas said. "Now we have to realise that we have to play like that all the time and not just some of the time.

"We know we have got the quality but we must fight for every game - putting in the work, making the tackles and closing down the space in every game. We have shown we can do it against Manchester United so why not in every game we play from now?"

Gallas had been one of the players singled out for criticism following his early-season form, and his erratic end to last term, which included an on-field strop at Birmingham City which hardly set a fitting example to his younger, less experienced team-mates.

"I know people were talking about my leadership before the game, but what I found interesting is that after we beat United everyone was saying my leadership was good," he added. "But I played the way I have been all season - that's how it is in football."

O'Neill insists he never counted himself part of the group which had written off Arsenal's chances, and the Ulsterman admits he is wary of facing a side he ranks as the Premier League most technically gifted.

"As soon as you think there is a bit of doubt, now Arsenal are right back in the championship after beating Manchester United," he said. "Arsenal, in terms of football, are as good as anybody on their day but they may be looking for the consistency that Chelsea and Liverpool are showing this season and United have shown in the past. Arsenal have the players and the pedigree, and they have the manager. All those things are in place and they are a top quality side."