There were many reasons why Arsenal failed to mount a significant title bid last season. But surely the most significant factor was the amount of points left behind at places like Upton Park.
A struggling West Ham took all three against Arsène Wenger’s men in a fractious affair on November 5, 2006. A struggling Fulham, Manchester City and Sheffield United did exactly the same thing over the course of the campaign.
It was Arsenal’s Achilles’ heel. Leaving all the other factors aside, that 12 points alone would have put them on the coat-tails of second-place Manchester United in the final reckoning and given them much more say in the destination of the Premiership title.
Arsenal return to the East End of London on Saturday as English football’s free-flowing force. They are top of the table right now and at the top of their game. But although Arsenal have put may wrongs right this season — winning not drawing early on at Emirates, keeping their discipline at places like Blackburn and Sparta — this game represents a different kind of challenge.
“Yes, it is another test for us,” said Wenger at his pre-match press conference. “And don’t forget we have not played many games away yet. We played at Blackburn, we played at Tottenham but this game is another test.
“We can show that we are stronger than last year if we can make a result at West Ham and do it in a more convincing way. For me, we were not convincing at all last year at West Ham.
"I am not surprised we are up there this year. I expected us to do well and fight for the championship. But the games so far were tight and everything went for us. We have won many in the last 10 minutes so we have to keep our feet on the ground and continue to focus on what we do well. And we know we have to fight on Saturday because a huge commitment will be needed at West Ham.”
There was mixed news from the training ground at Friday’s press conference. Alex Hleb came through tests on his knee but Eduardo dropped out with a groin problem. The manager had already ruled out Jens Lehmann (elbow), Alex Song (calf), William Gallas (groin) and Tomas Rosicky (hamstring).
West Ham’s victory over Arsenal last season was pretty much a blip in a difficult early campaign. They rallied under new boss Alan Curbishley and hauled themselves clear of the dropzone in the final few games. The absence of Dean Ashton with a broken ankle was said to be one of the main reasons.
The fit-again 23-year-old has been well-known to Wenger for some time. The Frenchman made concerted attempts to sign the burly frontman early in his career.
"When he was at Crewe, they played against us in the Youth Cup and he was outstanding,” said the Arsenal manager. “I tried to get him here after that but they had an agreement with Liverpool.
"He is an intelligent player and uses his body well and is good in the air. We were looking at the time for someone who could give us something a bit different and help us play slightly more direct if needed. We felt he could develop into that sort of player. After, he went to Norwich and that was a surprise because suddenly he would not join us. My understanding was that there was a gentleman's agreement that Crewe would not sell him to any other Premier League club than Liverpool.
“Yes in my opinion he is good enough for England now. Certainly he will be involved now because you have Owen and Heskey out. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Steve McClaren in the stand on Saturday.”