No fireworks as Gunners blow away West Brom with ease
November 6, 2011 13 Comments
van Persie 22, Vermaelen 39, Arteta 74
There was a time when Arsenal used to regularly win home games at a canter without ever needing to get out of second gear. After an opening month of the season which was nothing short of catastrophic by the club’s high standards, it appeared those days were long gone, never to return. It is a measure, however, of how far the team has quietly progressed and gelled in the seven weeks since the nadir of the 4-3 defeat at Blackburn that this was as comprehensive and easy a victory as any ever seen at the Emirates Stadium. Inspired yet again by captain Robin van Persie – who scored the opening goal and set up the other two – the Baggies succumbed meekly to defeat.
After resting him on the bench for the first hour of Tuesday’s 0-0 draw with Marseille, Arsène Wenger restored captain van Persie to the starting line-up, with Per Mertesacker losing his place in the centre of defence to the returning Thomas Vermaelen.
Jenkinson – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Santos
Song – Arteta
Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho
Arsenal stroll to a two-goal lead
Without ever setting pulses racing, Arsenal dominated the early exchanges. They controlled both possession and territory without managing to prise apart Albion’s overtly defensive formation. But it was not until midway through the first half that they finally registered their first shot on target. It led directly to the opening goal.
Aaron Ramsey again demonstrated his eye for and willingness to play defence-splitting passes, picking up the ball on the halfway line and sending a perfect inside-out ball along the floor into the path of Theo Walcott. The winger was able to collect the ball at full pace, take one touch to set himself and fire in a low shot. Ben Foster saved, but the rebound fell straight to Robin van Persie to tap in his 11th league goal in 11 games this season.
Some Arsenal fans had prominently displayed a banner declaring ‘We don’t need Batman. We’ve got Robin.’ Quite.
With Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny dominant at the back and Walcott and full backs Carl Jenkinson and André Santos threatening down the flanks, West Brom’s attackers were left feeding off the thinnest of scraps. Former Gunner Jerome Thomas came closest for the visitors, but he took one touch too many and allowed Koscielny to muscle him off the ball before he could shoot. It was, however, a reminder that at 1-0 the advantage remained a slender one.
Too often in the past Arsenal have been reluctant to play balls over the top behind defences. However, they doubled their advantage six minutes before half-time from just such a pass.
Here the instigator was Alex Song, who rifled a long diagonal ball beyond the far post aimed at van Persie. The ball was slightly overhit, but the Dutchman showed great tenacity and skill to chase it down and volley the ball back across the face of the goal with his weaker right foot. Gervinho missed his kick, but the ball fell to Vermaelen, whose fierce left-footed drive found the middle of the net from 12 yards.
If anything, West Brom were fortunate to be only two down at half-time. Arsenal had played mostly in first or second gear, but the visitors had remained resolutely in neutral, failing to register a single shot in the half.
Three-sy does it
While Arsenal have struggled to defend leads in recent years, a West Brom comeback never looked likely. Indeed, the second period opened with the home side still firmly on top. Much of the play was scrappy and lacking in tempo, but it was one-way traffic in terms of chances.
Vermaelen missed an early opportunity to end the game as a contest when he glanced a header wide from a beautiful inswinging corner by van Persie. Jenkinson delivered an inch-perfect cross for Gervinho, only for Gareth McAuley to intervene with a critical header. Foster saved well from both Gervinho (after a neat one-two with Mikel Arteta) and Song.
West Brom had the odd half-chance, but without managing an actual shot. It was left to the Gunners to show them how it should be done with a third goal that was a throwback to the Arsenal of old. Eight different players touched the ball in a 12-pass move that started in midfield and went all the way back to goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny before Vermaelen fed van Persie. The Arsenal skipper spun away from James Morrison and sprinted forward with the ball. He exchanged rapid-fire passes with substitute Tomáš Rosický before teeing up the arriving Arteta, who swept the ball majestically home past the despairing Foster’s right hand. Van Persie, Rosický and Arteta – it could so easily have been Henry, Ljungberg and Pirès.
3-0 represented an accurate reflection of the balance of play. Indeed, such was the paucity of the visitors’ threat in the absence of the injured Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long that Szczęsny was not required to make his first meaningful intervention of the game until the 87th minute. By then, of course, Arsenal were firmly in cruise control. In truth, they had barely had to put their foot on the accelerator at all in the entire game. It may have been Fireworks Night, but there had been no need for pyrotechnics as the Gunners kept their powder dry for bigger challenges to come.
Post-match reaction and analysis
Arsène Wenger was pleased with his team’s continued progress:
Overall it was a controlled performance where we had complete domination of the game. It was a good pace in the first half – in the second it was a little bit off – but we were never really in trouble. We are getting stronger.
The spirit of the squad was right from the first to the last minute.
He praised the all-round contribution of his captain van Persie:
At the moment it is difficult to stop him. He was not only a goalscorer but a provider today, that’s what I like with the strikers. The only thing I know is that he is world class.
And he also recognised another outstanding performance by the 19-year old Carl Jenkinson:
Today he had a very interesting game with the quality of his defending and the quality of his crossing. The pace of his improvement is very interesting. His energy levels are absolutely amazing.
However, he accepted that his team still had plenty of scope for improvement:
I think we have made some improvement, that is for sure. But there is still room for improvement. I always said let’s come back in December after the real tests. Of course the first big test was Chelsea, and after we have won another game like today. Then it’ll be down to the consistency we can show. Of course we are not at the level we were one month ago but we still have some work to do.
Against a poor West Brom side missing three of its key players (Odemwingie, Long and Paul Scharner), there was little to fault about a patient and efficient Arsenal performance. In particular, the Vermaelen/Koscielny partnership in the centre of defence looked pacy and assured, with Jenkinson again outstanding and Santos’ occasional shaky defensive moments outweighed by his threat coming forward.
The midfield of Arteta, Song and Ramsey looks increasingly solid and well-balanced, with the trio’s understanding of each other clearly improving with every game. Gervinho played a slightly less prominent role, but Walcott was a constant threat running at or behind defenders, and was also diligent defensively whenever Jenkinson charged forwards.
Van Persie is simply untouchable at the moment. His goal was routine enough, but his role in providing the assists for the other two goals demonstrated just how complete an all-round player he has become in the past couple of seasons. With eight games still remaining in 2011, he stands one goal away from becoming only the sixth player to score 30 Premier League goals in a calendar year – and at his current rate could threaten Alan Shearer’s record of 36 in 1995.
Finally, a note on four players who have each been the target of criticism from a vocal and not insignificant cadre of impatient Arsenal fans at various times of the season. Theo Walcott stands accused of flitting in and out of games. Aaron Ramsey has been criticised for giving the ball away too much. Laurent Koscielny is an error-prone defender who lacks courage. And Carl Jenkinson is out of his depth at this level at this stage in his career. All four were excellent today. Walcott stretched the West Brom defence repeatedly, creating space for his colleagues to wreak havoc around him. Ramsey knits together the forward and midfield lines and consistently creates goalscoring chances, as well as being a goal threat himself. Koscielny has blossomed in recent weeks into a defender who combines pace and aggression with significantly improved judgement. And Jenkinson is fast establishing himself as the team’s best crosser, and one with a massive engine - in many respects he reminds me of a young Ray Parlour.
Overall, this was a performance a million miles away from the team who were humiliated at Ewood Park. At that point, too many Arsenal fans lacked the patience and sense of reality necessary to allow this team of virtual strangers to build the understanding and cohesion which is now apparent. Yes, West Brom were limited and poor opposition here – but so too were Blackburn that day. The Arsenal from that game would not have won this one; this weekend’s side would surely have obliterated Rovers.
Wenger and his squad can now go into the forthcoming international break in far higher spirits than they did the previous two this season, which followed the defeats at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane. Arsenal still have a long way to go if they want to be considered genuine contenders for silverware come the spring. But as the long nights draw on, they are also a long way from the winter of discontent the doomsayers were so confidently predicting mere weeks ago. The results have been on an upswing for a while – nine wins and only one defeat in 11 – and now the quality of the performances is starting to return too.
Arsenal man of the match: Robin van Persie. Several others were outstanding – not least Carl Jenkinson and Thomas Vermaelen – but van Persie remains the beating heart of the team and had a hand in all three goals. Simply magnificent.