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Bolton provide ideal cannon fodder for Gunners

Arsenal 3 Bolton 0

van Persie 46, 71, Song 89; Wheater sent off 55

As they did last week against Blackburn, Arsenal produced a chalk-and-cheese performance in each half against Bolton. They were pedestrian in the opening period before turning it on in the second half as a brace from Robin van Persie and David Wheater‘s red card condemned Bolton to a 14th defeat in their last 16 league away games. Victory elevated them to 12th in the table ahead of a visit to North London rivals Tottenham next weekend.

Arsène Wenger made two changes from the side that capitulated at Blackburn last weekend. Kieran Gibbs started at left back, while Theo Walcott returned in place of Andrey Arshavin as Arsenal reverted to a more familiar line-up:

Szczęsny

Sagna – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Gibbs

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho

A damp squib of an opening 45

An even first half between the two teams with the leakiest defences in the Premier League was as devoid of chances as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is of beer. The visitors set up to defend in depth with one up front, looking to avoid a repeat of last season’s 4-1 defeat in which Gary Cahill, absent here, was sent off.

Szczęsny's early save prevented Bolton from grabbing an early lead (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Nonetheless, it was Bolton who had the best chance of the half. Two early setpieces saw Arsenal’s defence yet again struggling to convince. From the first of these in the second minute, David Wheater rose to meet a Martin Petrov free kick. The ball fell to Darren Pratley, a former Arsenal trainee, whose shot was brilliantly turned away by the diving Wojciech Szczęsny. Indeed, the pace and delivery of the Bulgarian winger were Bolton’s only real threat, as first David Ngog and then his replacement Kevin Davies – so often a thorn in Arsenal’s side in the past – were kept safely at arm’s length.

Arsenal posed both threat and intent, but too often lacked composure at critical moments. But if anyone on either side was going to pick the lock on the opposing defence in the first half, it was Mikel Arteta. Compact and simple in possession when he needed to be, the Spaniard was always looking to play searching balls behind the Bolton’s back line. One glorious ball sent Gervinho clear, but a heavy first touch allowed Jussi Jääskeläinen to charge off his line to smother. Robin van Persie curled a free kick just wide. Gervinho, Laurent Koscielny and Theo Walcott all missed the target. A couple of other promising moves were let down by poor final balls as Jääskeläinen was not required to make a save in the entire half.

Van Persie lights the blue touch paper

However, just 36 seconds after the restart Arsenal not only registered their first shot on target but also opened the scoring. Gervinho picked up the ball and touched it to the advancing Aaron Ramsey just as he was clattered from behind. Referee Mark Clattenburg played a good advantage, allowing the Welshman to feed van Persie. The captain surged past former Arsenal youngster Fabrice Muamba and, with the angle tightening, drilled a low shot past Jääskeläinen at his near post, with the Finnish goalkeeper anticipating a shot across him.

Van Persie scored his 99th and 100th Arsenal goals (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The early goal rocked Bolton and infused Arsenal with belief. Jääskeläinen had to be alert to prevent van Persie doubling the lead a couple of minutes later, but the keeper could do nothing about the game’s next critical incident. Ramsey again was the instigator, sliding a perfect ball for Walcott to speed on to. Wheater, the last defender, was never going to win the foot-race, and before play progressed into the penalty area he gave the England winger enough of a tug to knock him off balance. It was a clear denial of a goalscoring opportunity, leading to an inevitable red card.

Nevertheless, it says a lot about this current side that being 1-0 up at home against ten-man opposition remains a tense and nervy situation, and although Arsenal were now firmly on top and started to turn the screws there was a palpable nervousness in the stadium. A series of chances went begging, although Chris Eagles wasted a good chance to equalise on the counter when he fired straight at Szczęsny from the edge of the area.

Ramsey was involved in all three goals and the sending off (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

A second goal was essential to steady the nerves, and the killer blow was duly applied by van Persie. Again it was Ramsey who sent Walcott scampering free down the right. His low cross across the face of goal was perfect, and van Persie allowed the ball to run across his body before flicking the ball nonchalantly home with the outside of his left boot. It was the Dutchman’s 100th goal for Arsenal.

At last Arsenal could start to breathe more easily, and Bolton owed Jääskeläinen for keeping the scoreline respectable as shots rained in on his goal. In particular, Walcott should have added a third, only to make a mess of a one-on-one after being played through by Alex Song. Instead, the Cameroon midfielder applied the finishing touch himself a minute from time. Ramsey – again – laid the ball off for Bacary Sagna on the overlap, and the full back’s drag-back was collected by Song, who stepped around Pratley before curling a shot from 16 yards just inside the post.

A late injury to Walcott – possibly a knee problem – cast a slight shadow over Arsenal’s first three-goal victory since a 3-0 battering of Wigan on January 22nd, but was not enough to dampen the spirits of the home fans, who marked the closing minutes with lusty chants of “We are staying up!”

It is, of course, far too early to say that Arsenal’s season is back on track. However, a performance which grew in terms of attacking verve – if perhaps somewhat lacking in clinical finishing – combined with few defensive alarms can certainly be taken as a sign of encouragement. Only time will tell whether this is a new dawn, or a false one.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger gave an early diagnosis on the state of Walcott’s late injury in his post-match press conference:

I don’t really know [what is wrong]. I thought it was a classic hamstring but it is not. He felt a sharp pain in his knee and at the moment he is with the doctor. I don’t know what the diagnosis will be but it is completely surprising. There was no one near him.

His overall view on the much-needed win was as follows:

It was a question of nerves, of patience, of intelligence, and I think we controlled the game well even if Szczesny made a good save at the start of the game. In the second half I could not see Bolton scoring a goal although to their defence they were down to ten men and that made it even more difficult for them.

And when asked about what he had said in his half-time teak talk, he replied:

I felt that in the first half we were a bit impatient sometimes, that we didn’t move the ball quickly enough, that our midfielders came a bit deep because we were man-marked. That exposed us a bit to counter-attacking and we had less support up front. In the second half, maybe because they were fatigued as well, our midfielders played higher up and we became straight away more dangerous. Bolton lost more balls and after that it was a question of when we would score the second goal. We had plenty of opportunities. It is a deserved win that is welcome for us because we cannot drop many more points.

After a first-half performance long on effort but short on cutting edge, the second half was by some distance Arsenal’s best 45 minutes of the season so far. Even allowing for the fact they played 35 minutes against ten men, the boost of the early goal seemed to immediately lift the team’s collective spirit and provided the impetus for a deservedly convincing scoreline.

After a couple of early wobbles at setpieces, Arsenal settled well defensively and applied a stranglehold to Bolton’s goalscoring ambitions, allowing just three shots in the entire game. Davies was allowed to win aerial balls in unthreatening positions while the back four repeatedly mopped up the second ball, and the threat of Petrov was nullified after the first quarter of the game as Sagna gave his usual quietly efficient performance. And, early though it was, the importance of Szczęsny’s fabulously agile save should not be underestimated. The concession of a goal after barely a minute could have led Arsenal down a very different and darker road.

A complementary midfield trio showed signs of increasing understanding and cohesion, as Bolton’s trio of Pratley, Muamba and Nigel Reo-Coker were comprehensively outgunned. Song showed good positional discipline in protecting the back four, and only started to move forward once the game was safe. Arteta was the pivot, receiving and distributing the ball with good tempo while always having an eye for the more direct option. Ramsey struggled in the first half to impose himself in the more advanced midfield position but remains an always willing runner with a knack for finding a killer pass, being involved in the build-up to all three goals as well as playing the through ball which led to Wheater’s red card. In a week in which Jack Wilshere was effectively ruled out until the New Year, it was uplifting to see an Arsenal midfield dominate combative opposition in this way.

For the second game in a row, Arsenal created plentiful goalscoring opportunities, and here there is great scope for improvement. Walcott was particularly wasteful in the first half, but improved in the second as his pace allowed him to exploit spaces behind tiring opponents a man down. Gervinho alternately makes me want to cheer and tear my hair out, with his undoubted ability on the ball often being cancelled out by poor choices in the final third, but it has to be remembered that he has only made six starts and he is still feeling his way into the team. At a similar stage in his Arsenal career, we were saying much the same thing about Robert Pirès – he turned out quite well, I believe. As for van Persie, this was the best individual performance of his brief tenure as captain, and his prodigious scoring rate and ability to link up play will be critical to the success of this new Arsenal side.

The biggest concern is over the nature and extent of Walcott’s injury. Pending the results of a scan, it looks likely he will be out for two to three weeks at best, and considerably longer in the worst-case scenario. It will provide an opportunity for Andrey Arshavin to reclaim a place in the starting line-up, or possibly even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after his Carling Cup heroics.

It is back to Champions League duty on Wednesday as Arsenal host Olympiacos ahead of a trip to White Hart Lane next Sunday. Victory will leapfrog Arsenal over Spurs in the table. That should be incentive enough.

Arsenal man of the match: Robin van Persie. Two well-taken goals in a captain’s performance, including the all-important opener.

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

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