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Van Persie’s clinical finish in striking contrast to Walcott

Arsenal 1 QPR 0

van Persie 60

For an hour, Arsenal appeared to be heading for the same stalemate as they did against Wolves four days previously, repeatedly spurning chance after chance against a battling but limited QPR defence. But, minutes after Theo Walcott had fired tamely wide when through one-on-one, captain Robin van Persie showed him how it should be done, beating Radek Černý with a clinical first-time shot. Arsenal had plenty of opportunities to pad their advantage, but a 1-0 win was nonetheless enough to elevate them into the top four at the mid-point of a season which had started so disastrously.

With the games coming thick and fast over the festive period Arsène Wenger made three changes to the side which could only draw 1-1 with Wolves. Theo Walcott returned after a stomach illness, while Aaron Ramsey was also recalled and Andrey Arshavin earned a start in place of the rested Gervinho.

Szczęsny

Djourou – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Vermaelen

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Arshavin

QPR fielded three former Gunners in their starting line-up, with summer signing Armand Traoré joining Matthew Connolly and Jay Bothroyd against their old club.

One-way traffic

After a quiet opening period, it was QPR who produced the first meaningful goal threat. Shaun Wright-Phillips raced on to a through-ball by Adel Taarabt, but Wojciech Szczęsny immediately raced off his line to block. Other than that, the visitors’ only notable contributions in the first half were when Taarabt escaped punishment for elbowing Andrey Arshavin in the face, and then Joey Barton became the first player to go into Martin Atkinson’s book after a late tackle on Mikel Arteta.

Van Persie was the main attacking threat on either side in the first half (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Once they had settled into their rhythm Arsenal easily dominated the half. Although Arshavin and Theo Walcott were marginal influences on the game, Robin van Persie‘s movement was as effective as it was willing as he eagerly pursued the two goals he needed to match Alan Shearer’s Premier League record of 36 goals in a calendar year.

The Dutch striker had the best three chances in a seven-minute spell during which Arsenal seized control of the match. First he headed just wide of the far post as he back-pedalled to connect with Aaron Ramsey‘s cross. Then he lifted the ball over both the advancing Radek Černý and the bar after good work by stand-in right back Johan Djourou. And finally he left Matthew Connolly bamboozled as he read the flight of Thomas Vermaelen‘s curling long ball, only to send a stinging volley with his weaker right foot just over.

Arsenal created enough other chances to have buried QPR before half-time, but all went to waste. Walcott dragged a cross-shot hopelessly wide. A corner was cleared to Laurent Koscielny on the edge of the box, which the French defender coolly chested down and volleyed against Luke Young‘s outstretched arm as he slid in to challenge. Atkinson, however, waved away the appeals for a penalty – I have seen those given as often as not. Another corner was cleared only as far as Ramsey, and his crisp volley was cleared off the line by Barton. Arteta’s shot from close to 30 yards forced the watchful Černý to punch clear.

QPR were clinging on in the face of incessant pressure from Arsenal at the end of the half, with the onslaught broken up only by yellow cards to Djourou and, bizarrely, Vermaelen for a foul committed by Koscielny in a clear case of mistaken identity that went unnoticed by the officiating crew. Poor.

A swing and a miss, followed by a home run

The second half replicated the pattern of the first, with the visitors creating the first meaningful opening before Arsenal hit their stride. This time QPR’s best chance fell to Argentinian midfielder Alejandro Faurlin, who scuffed a shot straight at Szczęsny after the goalkeeper had awkwardly scrambled away a Jay Bothroyd cross only as far as the edge of the box. Shortly after Vermaelen limped off with a calf strain, to be replaced by midfielder Francis Coquelin.

The game then turned on two incidents in a five-minute span. First Arsenal launched a lightning-fast counter-attack after a QPR free kick broke down. Ramsey released Walcott alone through the middle but the England winger, who continues to call for the chance to play as a central striker, pulled his shot a yard wide of the post with only Černý to beat. It was a bad miss.

A quiet game for Arshavin, but he did provide the vital assist for van Persie's winner (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

It was left to his captain to show him how it should be done. Arshavin reacted quickest to a loose back pass by Wright-Phillips, controlling the ball with his first touch before stroking a slide-rule pass infield behind the defence for van Persie to race on to. The pass looked deceptively simple – it was anything but. Van Persie did not hesitate, meeting the ball in stride with one swing of his left boot and firing it past the helpless Černý from 15 yards.

The closest QPR could muster to a response was a hasty effort from Connolly from a corner, scooped well over the bar. Meanwhile Arsenal had five presentable chances to make the game safe, but failed to convert any. Arshavin and substitute Gervinho both saw shots blocked. Ramsey fired just over from the edge of the box, then saw a low effort from a similar distance stopped by a diving Černý. And, most glaring of all, Gervinho fired wide from four yards after more van Persie magic had allowed him to fashion a low cross from the by-line which offered up a straightforward chance on a plate.

But in the end Arsenal’s profligacy did not matter as they saw out the game without undue stress. While van Persie will be disappointed to have missed out on Shearer’s record, it was more a statistical oddity than a meaningful milestone. Trophies and titles are not won in calendar years, after all – they are won between August and May. Gaining three points here was what really mattered. And with Manchester United and Chelsea both losing and Tottenham drawing, Arsenal had the added bonus of pushing themselves into the top four at the half-way mark of the season, closing the gap to the top three to just three points. They will hope to maintain their momentum on Monday with the short trip across London to take on Fulham at Craven Cottage in what will be their last league game until January 15th.

Post-match reaction and analysis

After the match Arsène Wenger reflected on a result and performance which saw Arsenal gain ground on several of their rivals:

Yes, many teams dropped points. For us, it was a bit of a repetition of the Wolves game because we didn’t manage to score more than one goal. We had to be patient to take our chances. You have to take your time and focus on not making a mistake. That’s what we did quite well, and Robin van Persie again scored the goal that won us the points.

He praised the attitude of his team in recovering from their dismal start to the season:

I always said that you have to take the criticism and focus on performing better and improve. I give credit to the players because we have been 17th or 18th in the League and we focused and improved as a team, with a formidable spirit in the side. That got us where we are today. We still have room for improvement, but there is a good basis there because the attitude and spirit are really great.

He also commented on the extent of Vermaelen’s injury and whether this would influence his activity in the upcoming transfer window:

He has a calf strain, so maybe at midnight I will try to find a left back! It is serious enough for him not to play on Monday [against Fulham] or against Leeds. We now have three left-backs out [injured].

Straight after the game I don’t know [if I will try to sign a left back on loan] because I have to analyse it all. Kieran Gibbs is not too far but it would be stupid for us to drop points because we don’t have a left back.

In the midst of a congested Christmas schedule, results always take precedence over performance. Securing three points was vital here, particularly after the slip-up against Wolves, and the surprising home defeats for United and Chelsea in particular were a reminder of how unpredictable games can be at this time of the season.

In fact, there were also a lot of positives to take out of the performance. Arsenal were defensively solid, neutering the varied threat of Wright-Phillips’ pace, Taarabt’s guile and the graft of Barton and Bothroyd. The full back positions remain compromised while central defenders are forced to man these spots through injury, but the resultant lack of natural width was not as obvious as in recent games, with both Vermaelen and Djourou having bright moments coming forward on the flanks.

Walcott’s early-season form seems to have abandoned him over the past couple of weeks and he made a mess out of two very decent chances, but the threat of his pace alone was more than enough to prevent Armand Traoré from being an attacking threat throughout. And while Arshavin was similarly quiet on the other flank, he did provide the one key moment of quality which unlocked the QPR defence to set up the only goal. Aside from his goal van Persie’s overall contribution was excellent, as he gave Connolly and Danny Gabbidon a thorough going-over.

In midfield, the regular trio of Arteta, Ramsey and Alex Song were efficient, disciplined, and did not allow Barton’s antics to distract them, as has happened on more than one occasion in the past when he was playing for Newcastle. Arteta was, as usual, extremely efficient with his distribution. Song covered the pitch energetically. And although Ramsey’s passing, particularly in the final third, was often errant, he compensated by repeatedly providing a real goalscoring threat around the edge of the box. Each of the three both attempted and completed at least ten more passes than any other player on the pitch as Arsenal controlled both possession and the tempo of the game, and never allowed QPR enough oxygen to mount a concerted fight-back.

The goals may have dried up somewhat at the Emirates – Arsenal have scored just four in their last five competitive home games – but the side has an increasing solidity to it and this result was just what was needed to get things back on track after a couple of recent stumbles. Arsenal remain a work in progress, but a top four position at the turn of the year is a fair reflection of the significant progress which has been made over the past three months.

Arsenal man of the match: Robin van Persie. Arsenal’s liveliest threat up front throughout the game, and a clinical finish for the only goal of the game.

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

6 Responses to Van Persie’s clinical finish in striking contrast to Walcott

  1. derenzie says:

    Great analysis.

  2. Richard says:

    I agree with pretty much all you say. A very good write-up. I would say though that I feel you were a bit kind to Ramsey. His passing was poor in the middle third as well as the final third. He often dropped deep to collect the ball, but then did nothing with it. This was in great contrast to Arteta who often dropped deep, picked up the ball, and then marched up the field using guile and good footwork to crate opportunities. I can’t help but feel Ramsey needs to be dropped and replaced by Yossi until he improves.

    • Tim says:

      Ramsey’s passing is often inaccurate, but he also tends to attempt the most ambitious passes. For me, he shouldn’t stop doing that but he should be a bit more selective in his choices.

      I feel he’s gone off the boil over the past few weeks and looks quite jaded. Not surprising for a young player who is still only a year removed from his return from serious injury and for whom this is his first extended run in the side. I’m sure Wenger will rest him for the FA Cup game, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of Benayoun and Rosicky in his position in the coming weeks.

  3. kings says:

    Please don’t be too harsh on Walcott.Robin has been central striker for a longer period of time.
    Until Walcott has played more games as cs then we can give aan unbiased judgement.

    • Tim says:

      Of course, Theo will improve with more games in the centre. But unless he plays up front in the FA Cup games that isn’t going to happen. We cannot afford to let him get up to speed in PL games. He is capable of scoring some great goals, but his body language too often suggests a lack of self-belief. If he wants to play in the centre, he needs to take what chances come his way with greater regularity. Great central strikers tend to show natural finishing ability no matter how young they are. Theo hasn’t shown that yet.

  4. Pingback: Slip-ups bring Arsenal crashing to earth « The armchair sports fan

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