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Jittery Arsenal turn the tide to repel visiting Swans

Arsenal 1 Swansea 0

Arshavin 40

Arsenal took the first tentative steps on the road to rehabilitation after the humiliating 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford a fortnight ago with a stuttering victory over a Swansea City side who remain in search of their first Premier League goal after drawing a blank for the fourth game in a row. It took a moment of madness from visiting goalkeeper Michel Vorm to gift the home side the only goal of the game, but it was despatched with ruthless efficiency by Andrey Arshavin on a day when the performance was always going to be secondary to a result which gave Arsenal only their third league win in 15 games since February’s Carling Cup final defeat. Even this scrappy victory will have been enough to buoy spirits at the club and give a sense of the tide turning in the team’s fortunes.

Since the defeat to United, Arsène Wenger had strengthened his squad with the signings of Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, André Santos, Yossi Benayoun and Park Chu-Young. The first two were handed their Arsenal debuts, with the other three all available from the bench after Park’s visa hiccups had been resolved at the eleventh hour. With Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna and Emmanuel Frimpong also returning to the line-up after injury, illness and suspension respectively, this was a very different and stronger XI to the one which was torn apart by the defending champions, with five changes being made:

Szczęsny

Sagna – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Gibbs

Frimpong – Ramsey

Arteta

Walcott – van Persie – Arshavin

Unlucky bounces, Arshavin pounces

Arteta was particularly lively early on in his Arsenal debut (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

As early as the opening minute, Arteta displayed the quick-wittedness and vision which has been absent from so much of Arsenal’s attacking play so far this season. Pouncing on a loose ball in midfield, he immediately advanced with purpose and played a weighted pass forward for Aaron Ramsey. However, the Welsh captain snatched his shot errantly and wastefully wide.

Arsenal continued to probe around the edges of a determined Swansea defence which defiantly held firm on the edge of their penalty area. Theo Walcott came closest to breaking the deadlock, springing the offside trap behind left back Neil Taylor after a delicious pass by Arshavin. Vorm got a hand to his low shot, slowing the ball just enough for Steven Caulker to hack the ball off the line. However, despite their domination of possession and territory Arsenal struggled for fluency – hardly surprising given that the side contained two debutants, a midfielder (Frimpong) making just his second Premier League start and three others (Gibbs, Ramsey, Wojciech Szczęsny) with fewer than 20 league starts each.

Although Swansea spent most of the half on the back foot, they were not overawed by any means and happily pressed forward at pace when the opportunity to do so arose, particularly down the flanks. Kemy Agustien whipped in a cross from the right from which Danny Graham‘s close-range toe-poke produced a wonderful diving left-handed save from Szczęsny. And from the other wing a wicked Taylor centre flashed across the six-yard box, narrowly missing Graham before rebounding off the unwitting Gibbs for a corner.

Arshavin accepted Vorm's gift, making a difficult finish look easy (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With the home side lacking in both confidence and coherence, it was always likely to need a defensive lapse or a moment of individual genius to break the deadlock. In the end, it took a bit of both five minutes before the interval. Vorm collected a deflected Walcott shot routinely enough. But as the Dutch stopper rolled the ball out, it clipped the heel of the wonderfully named Àngel Rangel and bounced backwards. Arshavin was quickest to react, and from an acute angle the Russian – who had been Arsenal’s most consistent threat in the opening period – nonchalantly slotted a first-time shot into the unguarded net.

It was a horrible mistake from a goalkeeper who has made an impressive start to life in the Premier League, and the kind of comedy goal which Arsenal themselves have too often been on the wrong end of over the past year or two, but it nonetheless required a cool and difficult finish from Arshavin.

The second half saw the game open up, but again without either goalkeeper having to work excessively hard. Both sides hit the woodwork in the opening ten minutes. First former Chelsea youngster Scott Sinclair hit the bar with a free kick after being upended in agricultural and clumsy fashion by Laurent Koscielny. Then Robin van Persie wriggled across the face of the Swansea area before unleashing a curling right-footed shot which struck a post.

Little else of consequence occurred as the nervy Gunners increasingly misfired while Swansea struggled to get numbers forward. Gibbs’s searching first-time cross saw substitute Marouane Chamakh send in a towering header which Vorm comfortably got across to. Ramsey wasted a three-on-one situation with a pass that picked out the sole covering defender.

They were nearly made to pay for their profligacy in injury time when Szczęsny launched himself into traffic at a corner and could only land a weak punch. The ball broke to Graham six yards out, but his hasty shot was scooped well over.

The final whistle came as a blessed relief to the home side. And while the visitors could feel hard done by to have lost to a freak goal, their inability to support lone striker Graham underlined their goalscoring difficulties. While technically neat and tidy, they will struggle to create chances at this level and will need to be far more ruthless with their opportunities than they were here.

Arsenal will be glad simply to have escaped with the result and they can now take positive momentum into Tuesday’s opening Champions League group game at Borussia Dortmund, where they will be further strengthened by Alex Song and Gervinho. Furthermore, having now completed their three-match domestic suspensions, both will also be available for next Saturday’s trip to Blackburn.

Post-match reaction and analysis

A relieved and heartened Arsène Wenger was on fine form in his post-match press conference. He said of the team’s performance:

It was vital for us to win the game. I think we started quite well but slowly the nerves took over. We played with the handbrake on and were restrictive in the second half.

He was also pleased with the performance of his debutants:

Mertesacker was calm and composed – he just needs to adapt to the pace of the game. He looks very intelligent in his positioning.

 Arteta played very well, especially in the first half. In the second half it was more difficult for him but you can see he will give us some technical security that this team needs and he wants to play like we play.

[Substitute Yossi Benayoun] brought us something when he came on because he was mobile, he was dynamic and he did well.

While this was a less than commanding performance in which the side’s nerves clearly started to get the better of them in the second half despite the relative paucity of the opposition, a win is a win. It is certainly too early to judge the ultimate level of what is effectively a brand new team, and one still missing four definite starters in Thomas Vermaelen, Jack Wilshere, Song and Gervinho (and possibly five if you count Santos). With so many new faces and only a couple of days’ training with the full squad following players’ return from international duty, it would be unreasonable to expect the level of confidence, coherence and consistency which can only be developed over time. Not until the North London derby at White Hart Lane at the beginning of next month are we likely to see a team which is starting to gel and become comfortable in each other’s presence. Until then, solid results which continue to steady the ship are the primary objective – good performances are a bonus.

What do we know about the new signings? In reality, little we didn’t already know. Arteta brings a wealth of Premier League experience, first-class dead-ball delivery and one of the finest creative brains in the business. It will be fascinating to see how his partnership with Wilshere might develop over time. Mertesacker may take a little while to adjust to the pace and power of English football, but you cannot doubt the quality of a six-foot-six defender with 76 caps for Germany, who will provide leadership (he was Werder Bremen’s captain) and bolster Arsenal’s presence in both penalty boxes. And Benayoun is also a known quantity as an attacking force both centrally and in wider positions, who will provide much-needed quality off the bench and brings energy and motivation that others – Arshavin, say – have not always possessed. As for Park and Santos we shall see, but both add experience, depth and attacking potential to the squad at the very least.

There is no doubt that this is now a much stronger unit than the callow outfit who were lambs to the slaughter at Old Trafford. We cannot tell yet how far they are capable of ultimately going, but it’s certainly a start.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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