Ruthless Arsenal throw Wolves to the, er, wolves
April 12, 2012 6 Comments
Bassong sent off 8; van Persie 9 pen, Walcott 11, Benayoun 69
Arsenal knocked ten-man Wolves to the canvas twice in the opening minutes at Molineux and did not allow them to land a meaningful punch before finally administering the knockout blow midway through the second half. Goals by Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and Yossi Benayoun made this as easy a victory as Arsenal have enjoyed all season, moving them five points clear of third-placed Tottenham. Meanwhile Wolves are nine points adrift of safety with only 15 still available. Terry Connor‘s side are now all but mathematically relegated.
Arsene Wenger made three changes to the side which defeated title-chasing Manchester City 1-0 on Easter Sunday. Aaron Ramsey stepped into midfield for the rested Tomas Rosicky. At the back Laurent Koscielny (suspended) and Kieran Gibbs (groin) were replaced by Johan Djourou and Andre Santos, while Bacary Sagna was deemed fit to start after suffering bruising against City.
Sagna – Djourou– Vermaelen – Santos
Song – Arteta
Walcott – Ramsey – Benayoun
The two sides shared the points at Emirates Stadium just after Christmas, as a Stephen Fletcher equaliser cancelled out Gervinho‘s early opener, and a string of fine saves by Wayne Hennessey left a frustrated Arsenal ruing missed opportunities after a 1-1 draw.
Arsenal’s fast start kills the game
After their recent slip-up at Loftus Road, Arsenal would have needed no reminding about the dangers of complacency against a relegation-threatened side battling for their lives. Any such concerns, however, were quickly dissipated as they ended the game as a contest inside 11 minutes.
As early as the ninth minute, Wolves found themselves a man down, a goal down and with a mountain to climb. Theo Walcott fed Robin van Persie, who chipped the ball through to the winger as he raced through the middle goal-side of Sebastien Bassong. The defender clipped him from behind. Referee Neil Swarbrick had no doubt it was a penalty – it was – and promptly sent off Bassong for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity – arguably, arguably not. Van Persie was not distracted by Wayne Hennessey doing a passable impersonation of a Space Invader along his goalline and coolly chipped the ball straight into the middle of the goal to end his four-game drought.
Wolves had barely had time to reorganise when they found themselves two adrift. Again they were undone by the van Persie-Walcott combination as the pair played another defence-splitting one-two and Walcott’s first touch teed himself up to guide a low shot home beyond Hennessey’s left hand.
Perhaps understandably, Arsenal allowed their tempo to drop after that, while still maintaining control of the game. Aside from a couple of half-chances – the best on the stroke of half-time as Walcott lashed a volley wide from an angle after a poor header by Richard Stearman – the visitors used their numerical advantage to control the ball but created little of note.
Equally, for all Wolves’ hassling and harrying, Arsenal maintained their defensive concentration well enough to keep their hopes of an unlikely comeback dampened. A Christophe Berra header was deflected just wide, but despite repeatedly targeting the woefully rusty Andre Santos – making his first first-team start in over four months – the home side made little headway.
Benayoun applies the finishing touch
Wolves pressed hard at the start of the second half but Arsenal soon reasserted control. Aaron Ramsey should have made it 3-0 after Mikel Arteta and van Persie combined to play him in, but having done the hard work he hesitated and allowed Stearman to get in a block. In quick succession, Thomas Vermaelen headed over under pressure by Karl Henry, van Persie fired wide with his weaker right foot and the Dutchman sent an under-hit skidder straight at Hennessey.
On the hour mark, though, Arsenal had Wojciech Szczesny to thank for preserving their clean sheet as they subsided into a sloppy period of play. Matt Jarvis fired a cross from the left to the back post, where Kevin Doyle escaped Santos’ attentions too easily and placed a firm header back across goal from five yards out. But the Polish keeper was able to halt his momentum and throw out a giant right paw to push the ball away. A stunning reaction save.
If Wolves entertained any thoughts of getting themselves back in the game, they were quickly dashed. Van Persie, again, was the architect, picking Nenad Milijas‘ pocket and setting Alex Song free down the left. The Cameroon midfielder advanced and then pulled the ball back to the edge of the area, from where Yossi Benayoun wrong-footed Hennessey with a well-disguised effort.
Arsenal should have been awarded a penalty late on after Ronald Zubar scythed down Ramsey and van Persie also had a decent appeal turned down, but it was left to Szczesny to put the full-stop on a comfortable win with another fine save to deny Milijas. In truth, 3-0 flattered Wolves on a night when their hopes of avoiding the drop suffered what is likely to be a fatal blow. Arsenal, however, march on. Four wins in their final five games will guarantee them a place in next year’s Champions League without the need to negotiate a qualifier. They will have a chance to take one step closer to that objective next Monday as they host in-form Wigan, conquerors of Manchester United, Stoke and Liverpool in recent weeks.
Post-match reaction and analysis
Arsene Wenger was delighted with the win:
We started well and then had a situation where we could control the game. Did we push on or not? After that we played a bit with the handbrake on. We controlled the game, although they actually had a spell in the second half where they created chances. Szczesny made a good save but after that it was a comfortable win.
He was certain that the penalty award was correct, although he also had sympathy for Bassong’s dismissal:
It looked to me [like a penalty] but I have not seen it again. You could argue that he is the last man as well. The referee had no choice but I think the punishment is harsh because you give away a penalty and you lose a man as well.
And he commented on the FA’s decision not to extend Mario Balotelli‘s ban after reviewing his knee-high tackle on Alex Song on Sunday:
I still don’t understand. If you look at the case of Balotelli you get an explanation and you have to accept it. Then you look at the case of [QPR's Shaun] Derry, you get an explanation and you can accept it. But if you put the two together it looks absolutely unbelievable. When the referee has seen something nobody can get over the rule.
We need an exceptional committee of ethics who can get over that. The global situation does not make common sense. For people who love football you cannot accept that one is punished and the other is not. But I am not keen to get Balotelli suspended because I have no interest at all in that.
Although they subsided into periods of sloppiness at times, Arsenal rarely had to step out of first gear once they had established their early two-goal cushion. 72% possession and 90% pass completion provide a fair reflection of their dominance and comfort throughout the game against a Wolves side who never stopped battling until the end. On the right side, Bacary Sagna was as industrious as he was outstanding, completing more passes than even Mikel Arteta. Indeed every starting Arsenal player completed more passes than any single Wolves player.
Up front, it was great to see van Persie back to his energetic and deadly best, and he will have benefitted from not having had to play flat-out for most of the game. His link-up play was crucial to all three goals, and his penalty finish spoke volumes about how relaxed he was despite being stuck in the longest goalless drought of the season. Theo Walcott combined with the Dutchman to devastating effect, and while he drifted out of the game, particularly after half-time, he had already done all the damage he needed to.
Of the front six, only Aaron Ramsey struggled. His passing choices were sometimes poor, and his lack of confidence was reflected in front of goal. On current form he is a long way behind the resurgent Tomas Rosicky, who brings directness, urgency and good decision-making that Ramsey is unable to provide right now. The only other player who struggled was Andre Santos, who will benefit from having got a full 90 minutes under his belt. He looked hesitant, lacked sharpness and appeared dead on his feet after an hour, but that is understandable given his long injury-enforced absence. He will improve, and no one minds a shaky performance if it comes in a big win.
With three of their remaining five games at home, Arsenal should feel confident that they can secure the points they need to guarantee a top-three place which looked laughably ambitious mere weeks ago. It would not compensate entirely for the continued lack of silverware, but it would still represent a huge achievement after a tumultuous summer and what has been a transitional season.
Arsenal man of the match: Robin van Persie. Combined with Walcott to manufacture the first two goals, and was still awake enough in the second half to initiate the move which resulted in Benayoun’s score. Back to his lethal best.