October 16, 2010 3 Comments
Nasri 41 pen, Chamakh 47; Zigic 33
Goals by Samir Nasri and Marouane Chamakh secured an important, momentum-restoring win for Arsenal as the Premier League returned following the international break. Having secured just one point from the last nine – including dispiriting defeats to West Brom and Chelsea - a positive result was essential to prevent the Gunners from slipping further adrift in the title race.
With Bacary Sagna (thigh) and Laurent Koscielny (back) joining Thomas Vermaelen on the injured list during the international break, Arsène Wenger was forced to field a patched-up back four against Birmingham, with Emmanuel Eboué and Johan Djourou lining up alongside Sébastien Squillaci and Gaël Clichy in defence. Jack Wilshere continued in the centre of midfield, with captain Cesc Fàbregas still missing but apparently close to a first team return. However, there was also good news with Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs and Nicklas Bendtner all making welcome returns from injury and featuring on the subs’ bench.
Arsenal started brightly, with Abou Diaby warming Ben Foster‘s hands early on, and Chamakh failing to finish after some sparkling interplay with Wilshere. Squillaci also had a headed goal disallowed for what looked to be a debatable offside.
However, as is so often the case, after half an hour of apparently comfortable dominance, Arsenal fell behind to their opponent’s first meaningful attack. Serbia’s Nikola Žigić found a yard of space between Djourou and Clichy and used his six-foot-seven frame to send a looping header across and beyond Lukasz Fabianksi‘s reach for his first Premier League goal.
The visitors’ lead lasted just eight minutes, however. Arsenal pressed forward in search of an equaliser, and Chamakh earned his fifth penalty of the season as he beat Scott Dann to a loose ball in the Birmingham area and promptly went to ground as the defender stretched a leg out. Replays suggested there was, at best, minimal contact, with Chamakh clearly seeking and anticipating contact, but referee Martin Atkinson did not hesitate to point to the spot. Nasri sent Foster the wrong way, stroking a confident penalty to the keeper’s right, his fifth goal in his last five games.
If tongues were wagging during half-time over Chamakh’s role in the equaliser, there was no question about his winner in the early moments of the second half. A back-heel from Alex Song and a delicate dab forward from Wilshere sent Chamakh racing into the box. A spin and a skip from the quick-footed Moroccan took him away from two tackles, and he made no mistake sliding a left-footed finish beyond Foster.
Despite not adding to the tally – the home side falling back into their bad habit of over-elaborating in possession without any real purpose – the result rarely looked in doubt thereafter. Wenger sent on Tomáš Rosický for the subdued Andrey Arshavin (who was having one of those games) and then replaced Chamakh with Bendtner for his first first-team action of the season. Rosický immediately impressed with his directness and work-rate – it would be little surprise to see him replace the Russian from the start in subsequent games – and Bendtner nearly scored with his very first touch after narrowly failing to connect with the Czech midfielder’s cross.
In injury time, Wilshere blotted an otherwise exemplary performance with a reckless challenge on Žigić - the striker was fortunate not to suffer injury – for which Atkinson rightly produced a straight red. The England youngster will now serve a three-match ban, meaning he will miss the forthcoming league games against Manchester City and West Ham, as well as the Carling Cup trip to Newcastle, in which he would almost certainly not have played anyway.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, Arsenal were able to see out the ensuing bombardment without too much difficulty, with Fabianski’s handling reassuringly secure. The Pole enjoyed another solid game, but in truth had little to do as Birmingham struggled to offer any consistent menace.
Wenger did not dispute the sending off after the game, although he claimed Wilshere’s tackle was mistimed rather than malicious:
He mistimed his tackle and he got the red card he deserved. You have to acknowledge that he got a red card and he deserved it but he didn’t spend the whole game kicking people. He played football and was one of the best players on the football pitch. He didn’t want to harm [Žigić] – he mistimed his tackle. We do not complain about his red card but you cannot say he had a dirty game.
Encouragingly, Wilshere himself was quick to acknowledge he had been at fault, a refreshing attitude when some of his professional peers (ahem, Karl Henry) have been slow to accept any blame for similarly rash challenges:
I mistimed the challenge on Zigic and accept that I deserved to be sent off. I have no complaints about getting the red card and I will learn from this. I’m missing three matches now which I’m really disappointed about, but I just want to say that I deserved the red card.
Wenger also admitted the team’s sometimes hesitant performance was influenced by the importance of ensuring a win:
[Securing three points] was imperative and I believe we played with nerves. It was nervy for us because you could see our fluency was a bit affected by the fact that we had not won for two games. We played a little bit with the handbrake in the final third, especially when we were 2-1 up, and it was never comfortable today. You could see that and feel that in the way we played.
For us we were backs to the wall considering the championship [situation] and as well in a position where we had absolutely to win and we were 1-0 down. So it was even more difficult. But I cannot fault anybody too much on the goal we conceded because it was a wonderful header like we used to see in England 30 or 40 years ago. There’s not a lot you can do about it. But I must say overall that Fabianski had a good game.
The win had not come without its controversial moments, with the dubious penalty, Wilshere’s red card and a similarly robust challenge from Eboué for which the Ivorian defender was fortunate to only see yellow for. However, in terms of both possession and chances created, Arsenal were good value for all three points on a day when the result – particularly in the light of Manchester United and Chelsea’s draws – was much more important than a performance which veered between dynamic and sluggish. Too often the ball was passed from one side of the pitch to the other without offering any real threat. As has been the case too frequently this season, Clichy was out of position on both the goal – although it is hard to see how he could have done much against Žigić in the air without the aid of a step-ladder – and then again moments later when another mental error could have resulted in the concession of a second. And the right balance in central midfield remains elusive, with Diaby in particular continuing to frustrate as often as he delights. It will be interesting to see who else forms the regular central trio once Fàbergas returns. My money is on Wilshere and Song, with the latter reverting to his more familiar anchor role.
There is much that is still not quite right about this patched-up side, but equally there is much still to come, and it would be churlish not to congratulate them on their hard-fought win.
Next up is the first of back-to-back Champions League games against Shakhtar Donetsk, with Eduardo making a return to the Emirates after his departure in the summer. Both teams are tied at the top of group H on maximum points after two games, and a win on Tuesday night will all but secure qualification for the knockout stages.
- Arsenal 2 Birmingham City 1: match report (telegraph.co.uk)
- Arsenal 2-1 Birmingham City | Premier League match report (guardian.co.uk)
- Arsenal 2-1 Birmingham (news.bbc.co.uk)
- Wenger accepts Wilshere red (skysports.com)