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WBA Review: Arsenal Get Over The Line

Premier League 2011-2012 / Game 38 / The Hawthorns

West Bromwich Albion             2 (Long 10, Dorrans 15)
Arsenal                                    3 (Benayoun 4, Santos 28, Koscielny 55)

We expected it to be a nervous affair but it’s fair to say those expectations were far exceeded. It was 90+5 minutes of pure torture – especially the 5 added minutes. In the end, we saw it through, and that in itself is a massive boost to the club and players.

Arsene Wenger sprang a surprise by changing both full backs in the starting XI. Carl Jenkinson came in at right back and Andre Santos replaced Gibbs at left back. Aaron Ramsey was benched so Francis Coquelin started in the holding role next to Alex Song. Theo Walcott was also left on the sidelines, with Gervinho and Benayoun as the wingers and RvP up top.

The reason for this may have been Arsene’s desire to play Coquelin in the centre after his impressive showing against Norwich. It would have been risky to start with Ramsey, any mistake on the Welshman’s part would have destroyed his already fragile self-confidence. I think also that Arsene preferred Jenkinson over Djourou at right back because he feels the 19-year old is more disciplined in defence. Santos’ inclusion was probably down to the need to add experience and an attacking threat down the left.

Roy Hodgson left the recovering Odemwingie on the bench and started Shane Long up front with Fortune playing just behind him. There were changes in midfield as well, but the surprising and ultimately crucial change was in goal – Ben Foster’s late injury meant Marton Fulop was handed his Premier League debut. It was a forced change that would massively favour Arsenal.

The Gunners started brightly and we were ahead within 4 minutes, with another early goal from Yossi Benayoun. It was a highly fortuitous one, as Fulop overran a misplaced pass and the Israeli nicked the ball away to score. As with Norwich last week, falling behind gave reason for West Brom to venture forward with more purpose.

And the home team’s equalizer came in the 11th minute from a positional mistake by Arsenal. Although it was an offside goal on replays, it was down to some poor defending by the Gunners once more.

Cox carried the ball out of West Brom’s midfield and dribbled past both Song and Coquelin far too easily. Still, Arsenal had numbers at the back and the midfielder’s only option was Shane Long, who was making a run through the middle. As it turned out, Cox’s nutmeg pass on Koscielny found Long perfectly.

As you can see from the snapshot above, Santos was inexplicable drawn to the ball even though there were already two defenders dealing with the ball carrier. In midfield, Benayoun didn’t read the danger early enough and his inability to track the Baggies striker meant Long was through on goal. It was déjà vu – all over again.

Immediately, one could sense the familiar doubts surfacing and before Arsene Wenger could hug Pat Rice, West Brom took the lead.

This time though, it was down to some fantastic work by Dorrans. The midfielder made a smart run between Jenkinson and Koscielny, and Morrison found him with a long ball. He still had plenty to do but the Scot did it brilliantly. He headed the ball to the left of Koscielny and created enough space to have a shot on the half volley, which nestled perfectly into the corner.

Fingers can be pointed at Rosicky and Benayoun for the second goal as well. They could have attempted to close Morrison down and not allowed him the time to pick his pass. But that’s being too harsh I feel, and credit must go to Dorrans for fashioning and finishing what was a very good goal. Still, it does highlight how small things further up the pitch can quickly turn into big defensive headaches at the back.

Arsenal took a while to get to grips with going behind. But with West Brom sitting deeper, Arsenal slowly found more space to play in the Baggies half. Unlike Norwich, who played Holt and Jackson just off Arsenal’s back line, Fortune was playing deeper and this meant Long was getting isolated, so their counter attacks lacked the threat of the Canaries.

Our equalizer came in the 28th minute, with good pressing from Benayoun and Song allowing the Cameroonian to nick the ball off Mulumbu. The loose ball fell to the adventurous Santos and the Brazilian turned on to his left foot to let fly a vicious shot on target. While Fulop did get a hand to it, it was accurate and powerful enough to find the bottom corner. Arsenal were back in it. The rest of the half petered away though, with neither team playing well enough to seriously trouble the other.

Arsene Wenger took a bold step in replacing Rosicky with Theo Walcott at the start of second. The Czech midfielder had a poor first half and looked tired, and Arsene would have expected Theo’s pace to cause the Baggies problems. Due to the change, Benayoun dropped into the attacking midfield role behind van Persie with Gervinho moving left and Theo taking his place on the right. It also gave Arsenal a little more defensive solidity but Walcott failed to create too much on the right.

Arsenal’s third came on 55 minutes, rather fortuitously again with Fulop culpable once more. The Hungarian’s weak punch from an RvP corner went backwards instead of forwards, and Laurent Koscielny was at hand to tap into an unguarded net. The Gunners were finally ahead and looking good for that third place.

But it certainly wasn’t over. We’d looked tense all game and with the finish line nearing, the nerves were definitely jangling. Arsenal started dropping deeper, especially when Arsene took off Gervinho and introduced Kieran Gibbs, which meant Santos pushed up the left wing.

It was a move that arguably won us the match, as the left-back produced a fantastic flying block in injury time. With 10 minutes to go, Arsene Wenger shored up the defense even more by taking off Santos and introducing Aaron Ramsey. In the end, we managed to keep West Brom at bay and see off the match.

I feel the tension with which the game was played precludes it and the players’ performances from too much tactical analysis.

I will note however that I felt what we did well yesterday was to drop nine players behind the ball every time we lost possession. Unlike against Norwich where we tried too hard to keep the ball, we were content to let West Brom break us down without allowing them any room behind us.

As Arsenal have found out many times against stubborn defensive teams this season, that’s hard to do. Even after Odemwingie’s introduction, West Brom lacked that quality and we kept our heads to get over the line. This is reflected in the statistic on the right – since taking the lead, we allowed WBA only one shot on target. Having numbers at the back meant we put in some crucial tackles and blocks as well.

We have to credit the coaching staff and the players for that. Like I noted yesterday, some of our defensive issues will take time to iron out. But the coaching staff and players had obviously identified the failings from the last game, and we had a stronger defensive shape in the latter part of the match yesterday.

In attack, it certainly wasn’t a sparkling display. We had to rely on the nerves of Marton Fulop and our defending at the end to win the match. But its matches like these that define seasons and as Robin van Persie alluded to before the game, Arsenal were only too happy to win ugly yesterday.

I found Arsene Wenger’s reactions towards the end of the match very touching. When things are not going well, we tend to blame players and the manager and question their salaries and pass judgement on their committment. Arsene’s incredibly nervous displays by the touch-line yesterday reflected every fan’s emotions and it showed how much finishing third means to him.

A fond farewell then to Pat Rice, whose contribution the players celebrated after the game. The Arsene-cuddle above will forever be etched in his, and our memories as a personal sending-off present from Le Boss. It captures the last nine months perfectly, the team having to rely on each other’s shoulders during what has been a tumultuous season.

But 2011-12 is finally behind us. We were down for most of it and fought back only to slip once again towards the end. We got the job done when it mattered though and that allows us now to look to the future with renewed hope and enthusiasm.

Back with more thoughts tomorrow. Victoria Concordia Crescit.

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