- Written by Shane Thomas
After a trying last couple of games, Arsenal couldn't have wished for a much easier test than the one West Ham gave them last night. I hesitate to use the word 'test' as the match was tantamount to a light sparring session. West Ham were simply abysmal, their dire display probably bringing the six-month reign of manager Avram Grant to an end.
But Arsenal can only beat what's put in front of them, and for the first time in four games, they managed to do just that. A stodgy opening was broken in the 14th minute by a fine Robin Van Persie goal. That was the spark that both roused Arsenal out of their recent malaise and smothered any belief West Ham may have had of getting a result to ease their relegation worries.
With Scott Parker on the injured list and Mark Noble soon to join him early in the first-half, the Arsenal midfield were given the freedom of the Boleyn Ground to do as they wished. Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere decided that they wished to pass the ball around West Ham for fun. It was like watching a sorcerer and his precocious apprentice at work.
The star of the show however, was Van Persie. Back in 2009, Van Persie was looking like a perfect fit to lead the line in Arsenal's 4-3-3 formation. However, he then ran into the foreboding Giorgio Chiellini while playing for Holland and was out of action for almost a year. Since then, he's looked a shadow of himself, desperately chasing the form of his past self from the early part of last season. Yesterday, it looked as if he may have finally caught up with it. Not only were his two goals taken with aplomb, but his movement and link-up play were the pivot upon which Arsenal's attacks were based. If the Dutchman can stay this sharp until May, it makes Arsenal an even more potent attacking threat than they already are.
A win like this is unlikely to determine whether the Gunners end the season as champions or not. But after receiving a pair of bloody noses from Leeds & Ipswich in the past week, a win was paramount to stop their season falling off the rails.
But West Ham were so moribund, no Arsenal fan should approach Wednesday night's FA Cup replay with overconfidence. Leeds will give Arsenal a much tougher test than the Hammers did. Ignore the fact that they're in different divisions. There's a good chance they won't be in the same league next season either, although it may be the team from Yorkshire rather than East London that will be hosting Premier League football in August.
Szczesny - 6, Eboue - 6, Djourou - 5, Koscielny - 6, Clichy - 7, Song - 7, Fabregas - 8 (Denilson - 80 min), Wilshere - 7, Walcott - 6 (Gibbs - 87 min), Van Persie - 8, Nasri - 7 (Arshavin - 87min)
- Written by Arsenal Latest
Ever since they qualified for the semi-final at the end of November, the assumption has been that Arsenal would walk the Carling Cup, and collect the vital first piece of silverware for Wenger's post-Invincibles' side. Last night it appeared that that assumption had spread to the players, judging by their lethargy and slackness of passing.
Whilst Ipswich demonstrated the commitment and passion that one would expect of a side contesting a cup semi-final, Arsenal appeared to approach the tie from the start as if it were a training ground exercise. Passes were played for the sake of it, rather than to achieve any conceivable goal. Arsenal's dominance of possession was not impressive, but rather reflected their lack of drive and penetration, with players too often content to play the short pass, rather than build a coherent attack. Cesc Fabregas in particular seemed to have other things on his mind, as displayed by the moment in the second half when he attempted yet another five yard pass with the goal at his mercy. To be fair to the skipper, he did play the two best passes of the game, twice setting up Theo Walcott, who was foiled on both occasions by the excellent Martin Fulop in the Ipswich goal. Walcott was in fact Arsenal's biggest threat, being the only attacking player who showed a willingness to run at the Ipswich defence.
The same could not be said of Andrei Arshavin on the other wing, who seems less and less interested with every passing game. His inability to control the ball on a regular basis was matched by Nicklas Bendtner up front. Perhaps the time has come for Wenger to dispense with the big Dane's services? He is stalling as a player, and Arsenal are stalling with him leading the line.
The manager was correct however not to single out any individuals for their poor performance: the whole team was off the pace. Indeed, recent performances against Wigan, Leeds and now Ipswich seem to give lie to the view that Arsenal have great strength in depth. Eboue, though always a threat going forward, is no right back, Denilson no midfield general, Bendtner no target man. Keiron Gibbs' injuries have clearly hampered his progress. The driving force and pace of Nasri and Song, the two best players of the season so far, were sorely missed in midfield.
Though it is not 'back to the drawing board' after this result (Arsenal will surely come through in the second leg), perhaps this will serve as a reminder to the players and the manager of the need to, as the cliche goes, take each game as it comes. By all means take a rest in the second leg, with the tie already put to bed; don't wait instead until you're on the canvas. When Arsenal are at their best they are a joy to watch. Last night they were beyond ordinary. No one minds a player having an off-day, but when the whole team's attitude is not right, some home truths need to be retold. There will be no new silverware in the Emirates' trophy cabinet if last night's performance is repeated.
- Written by Shane Thomas
The Emirates Stadium gnashed and wailed in frustration as Arsenal were unable to find the goal to give them second place in the Premier League. Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini shook off criticism for his team's approach from Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas - which was gentle compared to the vituperate chanting from the home support - to ensure that City are yet to lose to any of their challengers for a top four finish this season.
With both David Silva and Mario Balotelli absent due to injury, and Edin Dzeko yet to make his signing from Wolfsburg official, Mancini made the conscious decision to try to keep a clean sheet and hit Arsenal on the break. He opted to position the Brazilian Jo and the industrious James Milner either side of Carlos Tevez, with the mercurial but flaky Adam Johnson left on the bench.
Arsenal kept the same XI that impressed recently against both Chelsea and Birmingham. Indeed, City's tactics were not too dissimilar to Chelsea's. But on that night, Arsenal played at a breakneck tempo and left Chelsea choking on their fumes. And it seemed to be their intention to do so again. They attacked from the off and almost took the lead three minutes in, with Robin Van Persie unable to reach Jack Wilshere's cross with the goal gaping. Joe Hart was then forced into saving from Wilshere a minute later and the tone of the match was set.
Thereafter City managed to plug most of the gaps, with strong displays from all of their back four. But Arsenal were determined to draw first blood, and with more luck they would have done so. Van Persie and Fabregas both struck Hart's right-hand post before half-time. They continued to probe at City's rearguard, but were playing far too narrow, making it easier for the team from Eastlands to put up a trojan-like wall to keep out the red-shirted hordes.
- Written by Shane Thomas
Arsenal came through a feisty and tetchy encounter to become only the fourth side to beat Birmingham at St Andrews since the Blues were promoted back to the Premier League last season.
Their 3-0 win means that the Gunners hold on to third spot in the league, two points behind both Manchester clubs. And with City arriving at the Emirates on Wednesday, Arsenal know a win will take them up to second.
They will probably have to be more fluent against the team from Eastlands than they were against Birmingham. Especially in the first-half, Arsenal struggled to inject any pace into their play, with their collective touch and final ball preventing them from making the most of any promising opportunities.
However, what Arsenal did have in abundance was a ferocious will to take maximum points after their late concession to Wigan in midweek. At times this resulted in them being too focused on playing at a fast physical tempo rather than their usual "tiki-taka" possession play. But in hindsight, this proved crucial as Birmingham had clearly not taken heed of their conduct in this fixture back in 2008. Referee Peter Walton failed to keep order as Arsenal had to deal with a succession of dangerous tackles, with Roger Johnson lucky to stay on the pitch after a studs-up, over-the-top challenge that scythed down Cesc Fabregas. So it was ironic that the free-kick that led to Arsenal's first goal was probably not a foul. Robin Van Persie went down under minimal contact from Scott Dann to raise the ire of the home support. This was exacerbated by Van Persie's free-kick being deflected into the net off the arm of Lee Bowyer.
The Dutchman had an eventful first-half as his handball in Arsenal's penalty area went unnoticed by Walton. Johnson also missed a sitter following Cameron Jerome's knock-down and ex-Arsenal midfielder Seb Larsson's free-kick was well saved by Lukazs Fabianski. Laurent Koscielny and the superb Johan Djourou managed to deal with the numerous long balls that came their way and marshalled Arsenal to half-time with thier lead intact.
As the second-half began the Gunners pressed home their advantage. They had earned the right to play their football after standing up to Birmingham's roughhouse tactics. Not only that but Birmingham's efforts against Man.Utd on Tuesday night seemed to be catching up with them while most of Arsene Wenger's XI looked fresh after being given a midweek rest. With the home side becoming increasingly enervated, Arsenal had more time and space in which to play. Within an hour the contest was over.
Arsenal had already given a warning shot after both Jack Wilshere and Samir Nasri came close to scoring. Nasri finally doubled the lead after a decoy run from Fabregas gave the Frenchman enough space on the edge of the box to curl a delightful shot into the corner. The best was saved for last as Arsenal kept possession for what seemed like an age, Nasri and Fabregas fizzing the ball around the Birmingham rearguard as if it was under remote control. As Fabregas hit a low shot from a tight angle, it rebounded in off Johnson's knee. Some would deem him unlucky but you could also argue that it was football karma as he should never have still been on the pitch in the first place.
With the contest now over, Walton's abysmal match continued as Lee Bowyer - already on a yellow card - got away with stamping on Bacary Sagna, and then sending him into the advertising hoardings minutes later.
The eventual ease that Arsenal secured their victory should not be underestimated. While they were definitely on the favourable end of the referee's major decisions, let's not forget it was the complete opposite against Wigan. And Birmingham have turned St Andrews into something of a mid-table fortress in the past few months. Their style of play is designed to disrupt and irritate, much like a bluebottle at a picnic. Arsenal did what United, Chelsea, and Spurs have all failed to do and swatted the bluebottle aside.
Fabianski - 7, Sagna - 7, Djourou - 8, Koscielny - 7, Clichy - 7, Song - 7, Wilshere - 6, Fabregas - 7, Walcott - 6, van Persie - 6, Nasri - 7.