Arsenal slipped on Saturday to eight Premier League points behind the leaders Leicester City but were still set on accentuating the positive. Arsène Wenger praised the “great resilience and drive” of his side and talked up the performances of Mohamed Elneny and Danny Welbeck. Per Mertesacker, the most honest talker at the club, said they had made a “statement” in the way they fought to stay in the game and rescued a point.
What that point will mean for Arsenal’s title challenge will only become fully clear on 15 May. But if they were to haul Leicester in, leapfrogging Tottenham Hotspur in the process, all while holding off Manchester City, it would be one of the most surprising conclusions to a championship race.
The well-contested 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane actually meant something else. It meant Arsenal had not collapsed, not during the opening onslaught, not even after losing one man and two goals in seven hectic second-half minutes.
They worked hard, stayed in the game, took their chances and emerged with more credit than they had started with. The players who went over to the travelling fans at the end did so with their heads held high.
This week, Arsenal go to Hull City for their long-overdue FA Cup fifth-round replay and will do so with that pride still in them. Had they lost on Saturday the pressure would have been very different. That is why Wenger and Mertesacker were so proud afterwards: the Gunners’ gutsy display meant their season had stopped unravelling.
“Our team performed well and showed great resilience and drive going forward,” Wenger said. “We always looked ready for the fight and always incisive in our way of playing. And I think as well we had an encouraging performance from a first Premier League start from Elneny.”
Mertesacker was even more positive after a defensive display which he anchored, holding off Spurs’ second-half siege, getting almost every tackle and header just right.
“We have shown great character and, hopefully, that gives us a lot of confidence and a lot of belief in front of the next FA Cup game, and then the following Premier League games,” he said. “We have shown a lot. With 11 men, we played really well. I think we defended well.”
After their no-show at Old Trafford, and collapse against Swansea City, it meant a lot for Arsenal to fight as hard as they did in the derby, with so much on the line. They did not leave with the three points they really needed, but they did not leave with nothing either.
“It is about how you turn up, and I think we turned up very aggressively today,” Mertesacker said. “Especially in midfield, we were always on the ball, always aggressive. We wanted to attack their man with the ball. So, hopefully, it gives us something. We needed it. We came here with a lot of injuries but never took that as an excuse. I think that is the biggest statement for ourselves.”