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Van Persie magic lights up Arsenal’s birthday party

Arsenal 1 Everton 0

van Persie 70

It is the hallmark of a world-class player that – even on a bad day – they remain capable of producing a singular moment of magic to illuminate even the dullest of games. For 69 minutes Robin van Persie had put in arguably his worst performance for over a year, but all that changed in one instant of supreme talent allied with unshakeable self-belief. A first-time volley struck with ferocious power and laser precision provided the perfect party present for the home fans on a day on which Arsenal marked their 125th birthday.

Arsenal had commemorated their 125th anniversary earlier on Friday with the unveiling of statues of three of the club’s most legendary figures: manager Herbert Chapman, captain Tony Adams and all-time leading goalscorer Thierry Henry. But with the present day in mind, Arsène Wenger was forced to field a back line consisting of four central defenders after André Santos suffered an ankle injury in the 3-1 midweek defeat at Olympiacos which looks likely to keep him out for at least three weeks. The loss of the Brazilian meant that Arsenal were without all four of their senior full backs: Santos, Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna and Carl Jenkinson. Thomas Vermaelen deputised at left back, with Laurent Koscielny returning to the centre and Johan Djourou stepping in at right back. Otherwise the side was unchanged from the one which strolled to a 4-0 win at Wigan last weekend.

Szczęsny

Djourou – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Vermaelen

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho

In last season’s fixture Arsenal came from behind to win 2-1 with goals by Andrey Arshavin and Koscielny in the final quarter of the game, after Everton had taken a controversial first-half lead when Louis Saha‘s goal was allowed to stand despite being clearly offside in the build-up.

Arsenal knock at the door

This was a game lacking in clear-cut opportunities, but not in combativeness or application by either side. Indeed Everton surprised everyone by pressing hard and pushing forward with clear attacking intent, looking to get the ball forward quickly and expose Arsenal’s makeshift defence.

It was the visitors who had the first real chance of the game after ten minutes. Wojciech Szczęsny punched a corner clear but the ball found its way to Louis Saha, only for Thomas Vermaelen to get in a crucial block.

Walcott was the source of much of Arsenal's threat (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

After that Arsenal gradually assumed control, taking advantage of space behind the visitors’ front six. Opportunities were few and far between, and yet they should probably have gone in at the interval at least two goals to the good. Theo Walcott scampered clear down the right after Mikel Arteta had stolen the ball from Marouane Fellaini in midfield. He could have shot, but with both Aaron Ramsey and Gervinho sprinting into the box he chose to centre, only for Tony Hibbert to make a vital intervention. Alex Song played Ramsey through, and the Welshman’s clever swivel and shot landed on the roof of the net. Seconds later, Gervinho went one-on-one with Tim Howard, only to see his unconvincing effort saved. It was the only shot on target by either side in the half.

Arsenal continued to press, with Walcott continuing to cause England left-back Leighton Baines all kinds of trouble on the flank, but despite his efforts the home side could not make the all-important breakthrough. Meanwhile the talismanic Robin van Persie was having problems both with his usually impeccable first touch and staying onside.

At the other end of the field though, Arsenal largely snuffed out Everton’s more direct approach – a far cry from the defence which couldn’t stop leaking goals at the start of the season.

Van Persie breaks the door down

Arsenal continued to dominate after the interval, with Walcott again providing the primary impetus. One delightful piece of skill saw him run directly at Baines, nutmeg him and force an excellent stop from the diving Howard.

But, having spent the first 20 minutes of the half almost entirely in defensive mode, the visitors’ best spell of the game came, somewhat perversely, immediately after David Moyes brought off striker Saha for defender Sylvain Distin. First Phil Neville shot just over the bar from long range, then Fellaini also fired over.

Van Persie's goal was worthy of winning any game (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

For the first time in the game, Everton sniffed the possibility of victory. And then Arsenal struck. Laurent Koscielny fed Alex Song in acres of space inside the Everton half. The Cameroon midfielder advanced a couple of strides and spotted van Persie’s run as he peeled off the shoulder of Phil Jagielka. He chipped a perfect diagonal ball over the top for the Arsenal captain to meet on the volley at shin height.

Often you can tell from a player’s body shape whether a shot is goal-bound. Van Persie’s here was textbook-perfect: perfect balance, head over the ball, left foot meeting the sweet spot on the full. And the resultant shot was equally perfect, leaving his boot like a bullet and arrowing across Howard to nestle just inside the base of the far post. It was reminiscent of a similar goal he scored at the same end against Wigan last season.

The goal was van Persie’s 15th in the league this season, and his 33rd of 2011. With four games remaining this year, he is just three goals shy of Alan Shearer’s all-time Premier League record of 36 in a calendar year.

Vermaelen and van Persie both missed chances to make the game safe before a late Everton flurry saw substitutes Magaye Gueye and Conor McAleny shoot narrowly wide with efforts from the edge of the area. Nonetheless the visitors did not manage a single effort on target in the entire game. On the day on which they celebrated their storied history and traditions, there really could be no more fitting scoreline than 1-0 to the Arsenal.

Next up are two tricky away fixtures: first a visit to league leaders Manchester City next Sunday, and then Aston Villa the following Wednesday. But a run of eight games which has seen them take 22 out of a possible 24 points should leave Arsenal fearing no one. Not while they have their Dutch conjurer waving his magic wand of a left foot.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger was pleased with the composure shown by his team in overcoming a stubborn Everton side:

Overall we created many chances in the first half, and the players were a bit disappointed at half-time that we did not score. In the second half, Everton played deeper and gave us less room, we lacked a bit of team pressure to get them out of position. We needed something special. I was always confident we would score, but I am very pleased we kept composure and did not give a goal chance away.

He praised the ‘exceptional’ goal from his captain:

Today he got us a goal which was at the moment of the game where we struggled a little bit to create chances. He delivered something special and three important points.

I feel Robin has scored an exceptional goal. He said himself he was not in his best of days, but what is important is that you are efficient. That is what it is to be professional, when you do not feel the greatest. I must give credit to Song as well, who gave a fantastic ball.

He responded to growing speculation about signing a striker in the January transfer window, with Thierry Henry among those linked with the club:

The problem for us is we lose Chamakh in January, we lose Gervinho in January, and offensively we will be a bit short. However, we have Arshavin, we have [Oxlade]-Chamberlain, who has made great progress already, who can come in. We have Park also, now his adaptation period is over we will see much more from him in the second half of the season.

And in response to where Arsenal go from here, he stressed the importance of continuing their current improvement and good form:

We have to continue. The spirit is there, the consistency is there now, our focus is there, so we will see how far we can go.

Although lacking in fluency up front, this was an impressive defensive performance from a back four lacking any recognised full backs. They coped well with Everton’s strategy of getting the ball forward quickly, and their attempts to exploit Vermaelen’s unfamiliarity at left back floundered as the Belgian soaked up everything they could throw at him. Despite the late chances which might have forced a dramatic equaliser, the fact they allowed no shots on target was hugely impressive. As I have said many times in recent weeks, Arsenal would not have been this solid at the back in August or September.

The central three were industrious, although their passing in the final third was sometimes wayward. Arteta anchored the midfield with his customary quiet efficiency. Ramsey was enterprising, but nothing he tried quite came off. And Song was much more involved in attack than he usually is, attempting more passes in the final third than any other player on the pitch. Too often he was overly ambitious or just plain inaccurate, but his willingness to try the difficult pass was rewarded with a splendid assist for one of the most memorable goals Emirates Stadium has ever seen.

Up front Walcott continued his good form of the last two months, making Baines look distinctly amateurish on several occasions. However Gervinho and van Persie struggled to make the most of the space Everton allowed behind their midfield and back four with their pressing game. Gervinho’s shooting and decision-making still have considerable scope for improvement, while van Persie’s overall performance was as disjointed as his goal was sublime. But he can be easily forgiven for having a rare off-day, and all credit to him for backing his ability on the goal, where a lesser player would have opted for a controlling touch and seen the chance go away.

Some of the artistry may have gone from the play of this new Arsenal team, but they have more than compensated for this by rediscovering the elusive art of winning. Whether 4-0 or 1-0, this is now a team for whom victory is becoming a habit as Arsenal moved into the top four for the first time this season. It has been a remarkable turnaround from the shambolic opening weeks, and they will look to consolidate their position further over the next few weeks.

Arsenal man of the match: Theo Walcott. Continuing his current rich vein of form, the winger gave Leighton Baines the run-around for most of the game.

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

7 Responses to Van Persie magic lights up Arsenal’s birthday party

  1. Subesh says:

    A great win.Perhaps a few more goals for us would have done no harm.Next up,its the “big spenders” Mancity.I hope we will be served with a cracker of a game.Cheers!

    • Tim says:

      Any win was fine yesterday, given how tough to break down Everton can be (and indeed were). I have to admit I was worried before the game. It was tough for the players to focus with all the celebrations before the game, and they no doubt felt under pressure with so many Arsenal legends watching on. If we get anything from the City game that would be a great result, but it’s Villa we really need to beat – and that will not be an easy one for us.

  2. DKD says:

    Well that was a peach of a goal by Robin and it deserved 3 points alone.

    • Tim says:

      It was a goal worthy of winning any game for sure, but it was yet another solid defensive performance that ensured that it actually did win us the game. Very quietly we are starting to look better and better at the back, despite the lack of recognised full backs. Just 2 goals conceded in our last 5 in the PL since the madness of Stamford Bridge. Not too shabby.

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