Arsenal do it the hard way to secure Champions League football
May 13, 2012 3 Comments
Long 11, Dorrans 15; Benayoun 4, Santos 30, Koscielny 54
Throughout their history, Arsenal have had a habit of doing things the hard way. The 1979 FA Cup final, where they let a 2-0 lead slip in the final five minutes only to snatch victory back at the death. The 1989 league decider at Anfield, which culminated in Michael Thomas’ last-gasp title-winner. Even the final game of the 2003/04 Invincibles season, where they had to come from behind at home to Leicester on the final day. This afternoon’s game at the Hawthorns fell into the same category, as Arsenal contrived to take the lead and fall behind in the first 15 minutes, and needed two crucial interventions in the dying moments to preserve a 3-2 win which secured third place and guaranteed automatic entry into the Champions League group phase next season.
Arsene Wenger made three changes to the side which drew 3-3 with Norwich. Carl Jenkinson‘s inclusion was enforced as a result of Bacary Sagna‘s leg injury, while Kieran Gibbs paid for a shaky defensive performance against the Canaries, making way for Andre Santos. Francis Coquelin replaced the out-of-sorts Aaron Ramsey in midfield, while Gervinho continued on the right side of attack with Theo Walcott not deemed fit to start after his hamstring injury.
Jenkinson – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Santos
Song – Coquelin
Gervinho – Rosicky – Benayoun
Back in November Arsenal took all three points with a comfortable 3-0 victory at Emirates Stadium, courtesy of goals by Robin van Persie, Thomas Vermaelen and Mikel Arteta.
A yo-yo first half shreds the nerves
As they did against Norwich, Arsenal got off to a flying start – and again it was the on-loan Yossi Benayoun who delivered the opening goal. Barely three minutes had elapsed when the Israeli international chased down a back pass which back-up goalkeeper Marton Fulop made a complete hash of dealing with, allowing Benayoun to steal the ball and walk it into the empty net. It was the 12th time Arsenal have scored in the opening 15 minutes of games this season – most in the Premier League.
However, rather than settle the nerves, Arsenal went into a funk and West Brom took control of the game and quickly reversed their early deficit. Their equaliser came courtesy of the officials. James Morrison strode through midfield and slid in a through-ball for Shane Long, who was two yards offside as he raced on and calmly slotted the ball past Wojciech Szczesny from just outside the area. However, Graham Dorrans‘ goal four minutes later was all down to Arsenal’s defence going into melt-down. He was allowed to collect Morrison’s ball over the top far too easily – Thomas Vermaelen had gone AWOL upfield – although his control and volley from the edge of the area was quite superb.
Arsenal were rocked back on their heels as West Brom surged with confidence. Gradually, though, they clawed their way back into the game, with Gervinho in particular seeing plenty of the ball wide on the right. But they could not muster another effort on target until, on the half-hour, they suddenly equalised. Alex Song nicked the ball in midfield and it broke to left-back Andre Santos, who jinked his way forward before unleashing a fierce drive from 25 yards. Fulop dived and appeared to have the shot covered, but succeeded only in pushing the ball into his own net.
With parity restored, the game settled down somewhat until half-time, although neither team looked remotely comfortable in defence. West Brom’s attackers continually proved a handful for Arsenal’s back four, but it was the visitors who created the better chances. A couple of Robin van Persie free kicks came to nothing, and in stoppage time Gervinho sprinted into the box but fired into the side netting from an angle.
Arsenal hang on by a thread (and a couple of blocks)
Seeking greater attacking impetus, Wenger sent on Theo Walcott for Tomas Rosicky after the interval. Arsenal responded positively, and looked the more likely scorers after the interval, with Santos narrowly missing the target from the corner of the box. But there was a certain inevitability about the fact that Fulop would be at the centre of things as the visitors retook the lead.
Van Persie floated a corner across the six-yard box and the Hungarian keeper made an awful hash of what should have been a routine punch clear with no red shirts near him. Instead the ball skewed backwards off his gloves and fell to Laurent Koscielny, who could hardly fail to bundle the ball in from close range. It was a fitting and telling contribution by the defender who has been every bit as important to Arsenal’s cause this season as van Persie.
Even with the lead restored, Arsenal looked far from secure. Both full-backs, Santos and Carl Jenkinson, were found wanting at times. The latter was lucky to escape punishment when he tangled with Marc-Antoine Fortune in the box. Both players were tugging each other, but penalties have been given for incidents such as this in the past. A series of corners for the home side also caused repeated concern in the Londoners’ defence, but without any real moments of high alarm. Keith Andrews swivelled and turned on the edge of the box, forcing a good save at full stretch from Szczesny.
In the closing minutes, Arsenal became increasingly passive, losing their cohesion in possession and inviting West Brom on to them. If their composure abandoned them in these dying moments, their commitment did not. Goalscorer Koscielny threw himself to charge down one shot on the edge of the box. Then in stoppage time, just after van Persie had blazed a good chance over – causing Wenger to hug his retiring assistant Pat Rice in frustration – right-back Billy Jones somehow found himself all alone in the Arsenal area, only for substitute Kieran Gibbs to come sliding out of nowhere to make a potentially goal-saving – Champions League-saving – block. Only this Arsenal side could allow such a situation to unfold when defending a slender lead deep into injury time.
It was tense, it was fraught, and it was in no way comfortable. But when referee Mike Jones blew the final whistle after five minutes of stoppage time which felt like five hours, it was enough. Given one final chance to seal third spot, Arsenal had done so – barely. But all that really mattered was that they had completed the job.
Post-match reaction and analysis
After the match, Arsene Wenger spoke of his team’s achievement – which looked nigh on impossible in the dark days of September – with understandable pride:
I think if you look at the season as a whole, we lost only two of the last 16 games and created a fantastic run. In the end we finished with 70 points, which is respectable, and we qualify for the Champions League for the 15th consecutive year. Of course we are very proud of that, especially this season having started where we started. We had problems getting over the line and you could see that again today.
In September certainly not [were we thinking of finishing third]. We were 17th in the league then. When you have played seven games and lost four you think there are 31 games to go and it is very difficult to imagine that you will finish third. But we had an exceptional run after our exit in the Champions League.
He left it to others to judge where this season ranked in terms of his overall achievements at the club:
I don’t know [if it is one of my best seasons], I leave that to you. I am very proud of this season because we were not only tested on the football front – which as a club we are used to – but on our mental solidity, unity and solidarity within. We were deeply tested, we did not show any weakness, kept united and in the end came back. It is a good lesson for everybody.
Finally. he had a few words to say about Pat Rice, for whom this was his last game with the club he has served for four decades as player and coach:
First of all we are from the same generation you would call the ‘Old Guard’. I am very happy to give him that present today. I would have been sad for him to leave the club today and not be in the Champions League. It is very emotional for him and for me as well because I arrived here and he was always my assistant. Pat has many qualities of the ‘Old Guard’; that means he is a fighter, he doesn’t talk too much – but when he talks, he talks! He is mentally strong.
There is not much to say tactically about this match which hasn’t already been said previously this season. Arsenal created relatively little in attack – they scored from each of their three shots on target – and were thankful to West Brom keeper Marton Fulop, who effectively had a hat-trick of assists. Defensively they were shaky throughout, notwithstanding the offside nature of West Brom’s first goal. Shane Long in particular proved to be a serious handful – just as Grant Holt had been last week – a reflection of a lack of cohesion in a changed Arsenal back line, but also an indication of a lack of cover and control in midfield which left the back four exposed too often. New assistant manager Steve Bould has a major task ahead of him to improve the team’s defensive organisation. However, there can be few men better equipped for the job.
This was a team which had no problem scoring goals – Arsenal’s 74 was bettered only by the two Manchester clubs – but had an alarming tendency to commit individual and collective errors which gifted opponents too many soft goals. 49 conceded was worse than every other top eight team other than Newcastle, and represented the worst defensive record in the Wenger era. There are issues in the back four – Szczesny‘s shots to saves ratio is lower than it ought to be, and aside from Bacary Sagna Arsenal’s full-backs are notably better attackers than defenders – but also in the way the team defends further forwards. Too often the midfield is caught offering insufficient cover when attacks break down, allowing opponents to spring forward and locate their front men with impunity. The rumours strongly linking Arsenal with Rennes holding midfielder Yann M’Vila make a lot of sense.
Up front, a back-up – or potentially a replacement – for Robin van Persie remains crucial, notwithstanding the signing of Lukas Podolski. With the future of van Persie – whose 30 goals earned him the Golden Boot – uncertain, and Nicklas Bendtner, Carlos Vela, Park Ju Young and Marouane Chamakh all likely candidates for a summer exit, that leaves only the untested Joel Campbell and Theo Walcott (whose contract only has a year to run) as potential strikers.
The one clear upside is that Arsenal have shown great resilience this season, recovering from bad runs and gaining a league-high 24 points from losing positions. That says a lot about Wenger’s oft-quoted mental strength, but it also speaks to an alarming tendency to concede the opening goal in matches. Arsenal fell behind in 20 out of 38 games during the season – far more than any of the other top clubs and more even than Aston Villa, who avoided relegation by just two points. Title-contending clubs have a tendency to score first far more often than they concede – until Arsenal learn to do the same they are always likely to fall into the category of pretenders.
Having said all that, it would be churlish to deny that finishing third surpasses the expectations of all but the most optimistic of fans even as recently as February. But there is still a long way to go if Arsenal are to end their seven-year trophy drought. It will be an interesting summer at the Emirates.
Arsenal man of the match: Marton Fulop. Oh, alright then – Yossi Benayoun. The midfielder on loan from Chelsea had to wait until the final third of the season to gain a regular place in the team, but always worked hard and chipped in with some vital goals. In this game he was by far Arsenal’s most composed player in possession, and was at the heart of much of their attacking play. He is never likely to be more than a squad player, but in a season where depth has been a major issue he is also a player Arsenal could do much worse than to sign to a permanent deal. There’s no substitute for class, and Benayoun has that in spades.
- West Bromwich Albion 2-3 Arsenal | Premier League match report (guardian.co.uk)