Arsène Wenger reckons Arsenal are under less psychological pressure with a title challenge than they were last season attempting to salvage a top-four finish. His team go into Saturday's home game against Fulham with a slender point advantage over Manchester City at the top of the table, but for Wenger, the situation is almost relaxing compared to the tension of trying to clamber into position to sustain Champions League status.
"It was much more difficult last year than this year, of course," he says. "Because when you are fifth or sixth and you have to convince everybody you will make it to be in the top four, that you have to push and not make any mistake because you know that from now until the end of the season with 10 games to go you cannot drop one point … It is like bringing a boat into a port with no room for going an inch right or left or the whole boat explodes. When you are in our position today it is natural motivation, natural incitement to go. It is easier psychologically."
The psychological significance of this shift in targets, to actual prizes rather than basic requirements, is also evident in Wenger himself. The Arsenal manager has hinted that he is close to showing his hand on the subject of a new contract. Having mentioned in pre-season that he needed to be convinced that he was the right man to keep the club competitive, an encouraging first half to the campaign has provided a timely boost.
With the critics noisier than ever last season he needed to feel that he was totally confident about making progress. "It's a big part, for me, of a manager's job. People were questioning whether I could deliver the quality. I said: 'OK, I can listen to that and I want to make sure I can deliver. I am convinced I can.' I was always convinced I can. But it has to be shown concretely by numbers." At the moment it is difficult to argue with numbers that kept Arsenal top of the Premier League for some months.
Wenger credits the signing of Mesut Özil for changing perceptions and creating hope. "It is not about me, it's more about do people believe Arsenal can compete? The fact that we brought Özil in at top-level money has turned belief around again," he says, before stressing that Arsenal will buy another player in that bracket if the opportunity arises.
"What we can do in every window is spend the money we have available," he says. " We are still strong. If the money is available, yes we will go for special players. But we have to plan our resources. It is very exciting to be capable to fight [in the transfer market] and keep your players."
Wenger admits he would have welcomed the opportunity to have signed a player of Özil's calibre and status earlier. "I would have loved to. But I would have loved first to keep the players we had." Holding on to what they have remains as vital as plotting to bring in an addition like Julian Draxler. Arsenal hope to announce new deals for Per Mertesacker and Bacary Sagna – and of course Wenger himself – soon.