Sunday, 6 November 2011

Arsenal stroll to victory against the Baggies

It was a crisp but sunny afternoon in North London yesterday, and Arsenal will at least have got plenty of fresh air - because that one was the proverbial walk in the park.

The players on the pitch visibly enjoyed themselves against a lacklustre West Brom side, and they are looking increasingly comfortable in front of the Emirates faithful too as the stadium begins to feel more and more like home. The new player banners adorning the upper stand (particular favourites: 'The Verminator' and 'We don't need Batman, we've got Robin') undoubtedly added to this impression - alright, they don't have the amateurish paint-splattered old-bed-sheet charm of some of the old banners that were faithfully hung at Highbury, but they are still a welcome addition.

The only slightly taxing periods of the game were the ten minutes that opened and closed the match. Arsenal did have to be patient initially, as they darted and probed, looking for a way to unlock the West Brom defence. Typical of a Roy Hodgson side, the Baggies set themselves out tidily and were well-organised, but without Shane Long or Peter Odemwingie they offered little attacking threat. Accordingly, the Gunners soon asserted their dominance, and although on a couple of occasions individual players were guilty of sloppy passing - which looked, if anything, to be a result of overconfidence rather than of opposition pressure - these errors soon melted away, the play got more and more assured and the first goal duly looked to be on its way.

The midfield trio of Arteta-Ramsey-Song is gelling into an effective unit. They spent most of the early period playing neat little triangles before spraying balls out to Gervinho on the left and Walcott and the overlapping Jenkinson on the right, thereby bypassing a congested midfield. This largely negated the impact of the five West Brom midfielders strung along the pitch, and in addition Van Persie began to drop deeper, offering an extra option for whichever Arsenal midfielder was on the ball - the Nike Seitiro, apparently; a neon yellow orb which has now been introduced as winter approaches in the Premier League. The ball's high-vis appearance only highlighted how little time any of the West Brom midfield spent with it - neither Chris Brunt, Graham Dorrans, Zoltan Gera, James Morrison nor Jerome Thomas seemed to have more than a few touches before a man in red-and-white deftly nicked it away like one of the bigger boys in the school playground. Ultimately it was the purposeful running of alternating players in Arsenal's midfield three, allied with Walcott's pace, that ensured an opening goal. Ramsey and Walcott combined well to set up an excellent chance, but Foster initially looked to have parried Theo's low driven effort before a certain flying Dutchman arrived to sweep home the rebound from about four yards out.

With the majority of the possession, the Gunners looked both comfortable and composed as they continued to forge ahead in search of a second goal. Pleasingly, however, they were also pretty solid at the back. Koscielny and Vermaelen were finally given the chance to resume a partnership that was prematurely cut short last season by Thomas' injury setbacks. The absent Mertesacker might be disappointed to have missed out, but he probably deserved a rest having been repeatedly dunked in at the deep end ever since his last-minute summer transfer move. Given his 6' 6" stature you can hardly say he has been out of his depth, and he has done a creditable job despite sniping from critics, but nevertheless the last few weeks must have been bewildering at times. Besides which, Laurent Koscielny has done extremely well in recent weeks, playing his part in Arsenal's resurgence, and as such deserved another chance of first-team action after missing out against Marseille.

Vermaelen, however, showed that he remains a class apart from whoever partners him at centre-back. His ability to seamlessly slot back into the team is almost incredible, and he underlined an excellent performance with a series of superb covering tackles whilst also scoring an emphatic goal. Welcome back Thomas - we've missed you. As long as his troublesome tendons remain in working order, he must surely be one of the first names on the team sheet.

So, going in with a 2-0 lead at the break, Arsenal were secure. They simply needed to maintain control and perhaps consolidate with a third goal to seal the game. Well, the Gunners rarely do things the easy way but for once they did just that, taking up where they had left off and also varying the tempo well to keep West Brom on the back foot. Hodgson introduced Mulumbu and Tchoyi to try and inject some more muscle and guile up front, but without much of the ball they had little impact. Wenger's substitutions - Rosicky for Ramsey, Benayoun for Gervinho and, five minutes later, Arshavin for Walcott - were more pragmatic. Benayoun probably made the biggest impact of the three, although Rosicky was involved in the set-up for the third goal, when sixteen minutes from time Van Persie played an intelligent and unselfish ball to Mikel Arteta, who finished confidently to notch his second Arsenal goal.

With the game more or less won, Arsenal did ease off in the remaining minutes, and for almost the first time in the match West Brom fashioned a couple of chances. Fortunately, Szczesny sprung into action when called upon, dealing with Steven Reid’s header and James Morrison’s drive calmly and unfussily. The young 'keeper demonstrated commendable composure and focus, aspects of his game that have been questioned, as he helped the Gunners to a second consecutive clean-sheet.

Both full-backs deserve a mention, too. Their approaches are very different - one is evidently striving to be a crowd-pleaser, while the other, conversely, seems to be rapidly winning over the fans almost unconsciously. Andre Santos is quintessentially Brazilian in his approach to football - cavalier in defence but flamboyant on the ball. Over the course of the ninety minutes he produced some dazzling examples of skill, including two 360-degree pirouettes that drew appreciative cheers from sections of the Emirates, and grudging acknowledgement from others (who still bemoan his frequently wayward positional sense). On the other flank, Carl Jenkinson continues to come on in leaps and bounds. He was always available in the final third to whip in consistently excellent crosses - all of which begged to be touched into the net. Alas, there was rarely anyone in the box to oblige. Nevertheless, at this rate, Jenks will have achieved cult hero status in no time - remarkable when you consider that last season he was on loan at Eastbourne Borough. Frankly, I don't care where he came from - the boy can cross. Note to Arsene - give him corner-taking duties too...

So, with the 3-2 defeat in the same fixture last year duly avenged, the Gunners are now level on points with Liverpool, who again stuttered against Swansea at Anfield. Moreover, Arsenal are now also a mere three points off fourth place. The team now seems firmly ensconced in a very comfortable groove. In that sense, the looming international break could not be appearing on the horizon at a worse time - but hopefully Arsenal will resume where they have now left off when they travel to Carrow Road in two weeks' time.

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