By Shane Thomas
ARSENAL 2-0 WEST BROM
You could feel it from Arsenal station all the way up to the Emirates Stadium. As the throngs of fans took their seats, the primary emotion was one of anxiety. Last weekend's miserable display against Swansea was a harsh slap to the face for the club. Had we turned up to see a painful repeat?
The talk before the game from Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky not only acknowledged that recent performances have not been good enough, but also pledged that we would see greater endeavour from the players. This promise was carried out, as there was a greater zeal, not only to work hard to win possession, but to also try and play the more difficult pass, rather than just pass sideways.
Even though Arsenal monopolised the ball, the nerves would remain with the score at 0-0. The opening goal was fully merited, even if the circumstances that led to it were unseemly.
Now to decry Santi Cazorla as another one of those "dirty cheating foreigners", bringing their continental sneakiness to proud, honest Britain, is not only borderline xenophobic, but incorrect. Have a look at the passports of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Gareth Bale and tell me British players don't dive. And before you try to say that this is a result of in the influx of foreign talent to the English game, I have two words for you; Francis Lee.
That said, to mitigate Cazorla by stating that his behaviour was acceptable because other players dive is the most asinine form of ad hominem argument. If Santi dived, he should have been booked. The fact he wasn't is testament to how poor referee Mike Jones was.
While many will rightly praise Arsenal's midfield for yesterday's victory, a lot of credit should also go to the defence. Once a punchline in recent seasons, when all the members of the back five are fit, the team look increasingly solid, which sets a crucial foundation to threaten the opposition at the business end of the pitch. After a dreadful start to the season, Thomas Vermaelen looks to have gotten his groove back, with Per Mertesacker acting as a superb anchor for the backline - the "BFG" has probably been Arsenal's player of the season so far.
However, there's no doubting that Arsenal's problems have centred around with how poorly they've been using the ball, and for the first time this season, the midfield trio of Cazorla, Arteta, and Jack Wilshere looked to have found a rhythm in their interplay. They seized control of the match in the second half, producing some excellent passing and movement. The ring rust that comes with an 18 month absence appears to be finally coming off Wilshere, with his drive from midfield crucial in transitions, and he often used Gervinho as a reliable outball. Despite missing a couple of good chances, the Ivorian had one of his better displays, using his pace to give Steven Reid a tough afternoon.
A win was a must for the Gunners, and they deservedly got it. Arsenal had been like a broken clock over the past few weeks. Arteta was the metronome that got them ticking again. We saw the very best of vice-captain's game, setting the tempo and shaping the entire narrative of the match like a conductor. It's no surprise that his 93 touches of the ball comfortably surpassed any other player on the pitch. And his courage to take both penalties after failing to score with his previous one showed that the Spaniard is not a man who can be accused of having a weak temperament.
The performance should be contextualised by just how awful West Brom were. This was a moribund display from a team that only a few weeks ago had defeated Chelsea to go as high as 3rd in the Premier League. They clearly felt the absences of Ben Foster and Claudio Yacob, as their attacking strategy seemed to depend on goal kicks lofted on to the head of Chris Brunt. The fact that he was up against Bacary Sagna, who won more headers that any other player showed how effective that tactic wasn't.
The next two games could be a strong indicator of how Arsenal's season will develop. Tuesday's League Cup quarter-final against Bradford is followed up by a trip to Reading on Monday week. Win both matches, and the Gunners are in a cup semi-final, and well in the race for 4th place. Yesterday's victory needs to be the win that kickstarts their season.
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