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Arsenal do it the hard way to secure Champions League football

West Brom 2 Arsenal 3

Long 11, Dorrans 15; Benayoun 4, Santos 30, Koscielny 54

Throughout their history, Arsenal have had a habit of doing things the hard way. The 1979 FA Cup final, where they let a 2-0 lead slip in the final five minutes only to snatch victory back at the death. The 1989 league decider at Anfield, which culminated in Michael Thomas’ last-gasp title-winner. Even the final game of the 2003/04 Invincibles season, where they had to come from behind at home to Leicester on the final day. This afternoon’s game at the Hawthorns fell into the same category, as Arsenal contrived to take the lead and fall behind in the first 15 minutes, and needed two crucial interventions in the dying moments to preserve a 3-2 win which secured third place and guaranteed automatic entry into the Champions League group phase next season.
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No fireworks as Gunners blow away West Brom with ease

Arsenal 3 West Bromwich Albion 0

van Persie 22, Vermaelen 39, Arteta 74

There was a time when Arsenal used to regularly win home games at a canter without ever needing to get out of second gear. After an opening month of the season which was nothing short of catastrophic by the club’s high standards, it appeared those days were long gone, never to return. It is a measure, however, of how far the team has quietly progressed and gelled in the seven weeks since the nadir of the 4-3 defeat at Blackburn that this was as comprehensive and easy a victory as any ever seen at the Emirates Stadium. Inspired yet again by captain Robin van Persie – who scored the opening goal and set up the other two – the Baggies succumbed meekly to defeat.

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Arsenal’s late comeback shows character but no killer instinct

West Bromwich Albion 2 Arsenal 2

Reid 3, Odemwingie 58; Arshavin 70, van Persie 78

Two goals in eight minutes by Andrey Arshavin and Robin van Persie brought Arsenal back from the brink of a catastrophic defeat to West Bromwich Albion, but they could not complete the turnaround by applying the finishing touch of a winning goal. That proved costly, as ten-man Manchester United won courtesy of an 88th-minute goal and extended their lead at the top of the Premier League to five points. The difference in the title contenders’ results owed something to luck, but also underlined perhaps the biggest difference between the two sides: Arsenal possess character but lack belief, whereas United possess not only character and belief, but also the killer instinct to grab an opportunity when it presents itself.

With Johan Djourou and Abou Diaby joining a lengthening injury list, Arsène Wenger was forced to field a depleted XI at the Hawthorns. However, he did give a start to Aaron Ramsey, making his first league appearance since breaking his leg against Stoke last February.

Almunia

Sagna – Squillaci – Koscielny – Gibbs

Denilson – Ramsey

Wiilshere

Nasri – van Persie – Arshavin

Arsenal had suffered a surprise 3-2 defeat in the home game at the Emirates back in September, when two late Samir Nasri goals were not enough to cancel out three second half goals by the visitors, who capitalised on some lethargic play and fully deserved all three points.

The worst possible start

Ramsey should have scored on his league return (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

That lethargy was in evidence again here as Arsenal got off to the worst possible start. Inside three minutes, Bacary Sagna lost his man at a throw-in, resulting in the concession of a soft corner. Chris Brunt‘s excellent outswinging delivery was met by the head of Steven Reid, who had the luxury of powering in a virtually free header for his first league goal of the season. It was also the first time Arsenal have conceded in the first 15 minutes in the Premier League this season.

The visitors, shell-shocked, dominated possession but did not have their first shot until the 25th minute – and then they should have scored twice over. Gaël Clichy whipped in an excellent cross from the left which van Persie headed against the bar with Scott Carson stranded. Ramsey collected the rebound, but with the goal at his mercy shot straight at the West Brom keeper.

And that was basically it for the first 45 minutes. Arsenal prodded and probed, and had a couple of spells of decent pressure in and around the West Brom box, but Carson was not called into significant action again before half-time.

Worse, then better – but still not good enough

Wenger made a positive tactical switch at half-time, removing the ineffective Denilson and replacing him with Marouane Chamakh. But it was West Brom who had the first big chance of the half, as a sliding Brunt could only find the side netting from Marek Čech‘s cross.

Almunia's howler left Arsenal 2-0 down (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

That was soon followed by the arrival of Nicklas Bendtner for the tiring Ramsey. The Dane had barely set foot on the pitch when disaster struck. Sébastien Squillaci appeared to have Youssouf Mulumbu‘s simple long ball over the top covered, but Manuel Almunia inexplicably charged out of his box and tangled with the French defender, allowing Peter Odemwingie to score. It was a goalkeeping howler of the highest proportion.

Stung into desperation, Arsenal pressed forward in search of a way back to the game, and it finally arrived in the 70th minute courtesy of Arshavin. The Russian passed to Chamakh and continued his run into the box to receive the return. He flicked the ball with his right foot, and then hammered it past Carson with his left from 15 yards. It was a superb finish, completely out of context with Arsenal’s preceding efforts.

Arshavin was instrumental in Arsenal's comeback (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Re-energised, the visitors surged on in search of the equaliser. Eight minutes later Arshavin, with two defenders in close attendance, made himself enough space to whip in a cross to the back post. Bendtner touched it back, and as the ball got stuck between Abdoulaye Meite‘s feet van Persie just managed to get a toe in and it rolled almost apologetically over the line.

With parity restored, Arsenal sought a winner but were almost caught out when Marc-Antoine Fortuné charged through on goal only to be denied by a fantastic sliding block by Squillaci. Nonetheless it was virtually one-way traffic as Carson looked distinctly uncomfortable under a succession of high balls. Clichy lashed in a late effort which was well saved, but Arsenal just could not find a way through the home side’s increasingly desperate defence and had to settle for a point.

Somehow, you just feel United would have had the killer instinct to leave with all three.

Meanwhile, Arsenal now have a record of just five points from five games against the three promoted clubs, and are winless in four games. Their only victory since the Carling Cup defeat three weeks ago was the FA Cup win over League One Leyton Orient.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger refused to be too downcast – at least publicly – after the game:

I am proud of the spirit we have shown. It shows we are ready for a fight. We made things difficult for ourselves with the second goal and we faced opponents who were very well organised.

It was more down to character and resilience, which we have shown plenty of. Mathematically, we [have] lost two points but psychologically we have won a point because when you are 2-0 down with 20 minutes to go, you are not too unhappy to come back.

And he refused to assign blame for West Brom’s crucial second goal:

I do not want to go too much into individual criticism. What was good was the reaction the whole team has shown. It will be interesting until the end [of the season], we are ready to focus and ready to fight.

He also pointed out that, despite this setback, the title race is far from over:

I felt, no matter what happened today, it will not be over. For the team, it was important not to lose. With what happened to us recently, of course, you wonder how you would recover if you lose the game today.

I have heard that Manchester United won in the last two minutes. It is the least predictable season since I have been in England.

Wenger was certainly right about the title race remaining alive, although Arsenal can ill afford setbacks like this one. Nonetheless, they are only five points behind with a game in hand and United are still to come to the Emirates. However, they are a long way from showing title-winning form right now. For once, the international break could not have come at a better time as an opportunity to heal and regroup.

There isn’t much point doing an in-depth tactical analysis of this game, as the majority of Arsenal’s problems at the moment are mental rather than tactical. So instead let’s examine what those issues are, and what needs to be done over the summer, regardless of whether the title is won or lost.

A busy summer ahead?

For me, the problem lies not so much with the starting XI – which can stand toe-to-toe with any team in Europe – as with their backups. Ever since the second-string started to feature regularly over the Christmas period, it has become increasingly obvious that most of them lack either the ability or the mentality – and in some cases both – to step up and deliver when called upon. While the club have been admirably patient with many of the current crop of players, giving them time to develop and rewarding them with lucrative new contracts to ward off potential suitors, there comes a point when it is time to accept that some players have simply not made the grade.

I don’t think a wholesale clear-out is required, but there are certainly at least four players who need to be moved on in the summer, starting with Denilson, Emmanuel Eboué, Carlos Vela and Almunia. Arshavin has been the target of many fans’ dissatisfaction because of his poor fitness and work-rate, but he remains a game-changer without whom Arsenal would not have earned even a single point here. Squillaci is adequate as an experienced fourth-choice defender (but no more than that), and while Bendtner and Abou Diaby have their flaws, they both serve useful roles as squad players. Whatever happens, the squad needs to be shaken up and reminded that their places are not secure if they cannot perform to the required level.

The problem facing the club is twofold. Firstly it requires Wenger to accept that some of the squad he has been developing for years simply isn’t good enough. There is no shame in that – sometimes even the most promising of youngsters do not fulfil their promise, no matter how good the coaching – but it will require the notoriously stubborn Wenger to accept that. And secondly, those same lucrative contracts that prevented other clubs from tempting them away now provide a significant barrier to moving those players on. That’s not to say the club would not be able to sell, say, Denilson – but they might have to accept a substantially reduced fee to compensate for another team taking on his wages.

A reduced transfer fee should not be a show-stopper, though. There is already cash in the kitty, and if the sale of the four identified players can raise anywhere north of £10m, that would be fine. (If Bendtner can be sold for anywhere near the £17m Newcastle were reportedly offering for him on transfer deadline day, that would be excellent business too.)

But who should these four be replaced with? I don’t believe it is necessary to sign four new players in their place. With on-loan youngsters like Kyle Bartley (Rangers), Henri Lansbury (Norwich) and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Cardiff) all potentially ready to take their places on the edges of the squad, two or three signings of sufficient quality would suffice. Without naming names, I would like to see some decent money spent on experienced, tough players who can step easily into the first team, if not necessarily displace them. A 30-something goalkeeper, an uncompromising defender (someone like Blackburn‘s Christopher Samba, say) and a robust central midfielder in their mid-to-late twenties (a two-years-younger Scott Parker would have been ideal) would be perfect. Whether they come from England or elsewhere doesn’t really matter, but they would need to have that never-say-die attitude which too many of the current squad lack.

All that is in the future now. With the international break, Arsenal do not play again until the home fixture against Blackburn in two weeks’ time. They will need to bounce back with a more convincing performance and result than this if their one remaining chance of silverware is not to slip away.

West Brom win as Arsenal are shaken out of complacency

Arsenal 2 West Bromwich Albion 3

Nasri 75, 90; Odemwingie 50, Jara 52, Thomas 73

Samir Nasri‘s two late goals were not enough to prevent Arsenal from slipping to an unexpected defeat against a West Brom side who fully deserved to leave the Emirates Stadium with all three points.

Arsène Wenger made nine changes from the side who started Tuesday’s extra time Carling Cup win over Tottenham, retaining only Laurent Koscielny and Samir Nasri, and also welcomed back Abou Diaby and Alex Song from injury and suspension respectively.

Manuel Almunia (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Without looking close to their flowing best, Arsenal carved out several chances in the first quarter of the game. Nasri was off target with a number of efforts, Andrey Arshavin contrived to hit the post twice from close range in quick succession, and Marouane Chamakh headed wide. But the more chances that went begging – and the more Arsenal, in the absence of the injured Cesc Fàbregas, drifted into over-elaboration – the more the visitors established their own neat passing game.

The first sign that those early misses might prove costly came eight minutes before half-time, when Manuel Almunia raced recklessly off his line and brought down Peter Odemwingie. But having conceded the penalty, Almunia atoned by diving to his right to save Chris Brunt‘s tame spot-kick, but in so doing injured his shoulder, requiring treatment during the interval.

Despite the all too clear warning, Arsenal were equally sluggish after the break, and two goals in two minutes early in the half swung the match decisively in the Baggies’ favour. First former Gunner Jerome Thomas, West Brom’s best player, wriggled easily past Bacary Sagna and squared for Odemwingie to slide in, then Chilean international Gonzalo Jara, with Koscielny standing off him, struck a low shot straight at Almunia which the keeper allowed to go straight through him.

Wenger responded by sending on Jack Wilshere and Tomáš Rosický for the ineffective midfield pair of Diaby and Emmanuel Eboué, and then Carlos Vela for Koscielny, but as Arsenal pressed harder in their attempts to find a way back into the match they laid themselves open to the counter-attack. From one such move, Almunia sprinted off his line and ended up in no-man’s land as Brunt was left with an easy pass for the unmarked Thomas to tap in.

Samir Nasri (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Nasri, Arsenal’s one outstanding performer, responded immediately, hitting the bar from the edge of the box before skipping past two tackles and coolly steering a left-footed shot past Scott Carson. Then, in the first of five minutes of injury time, Arshavin’s quick feet set up the Frenchman to score from near the penalty spot. But the improbable comeback remained tantalisingly incomplete, and West Brom clung on for their well-earned win.

Poor as Arsenal were throughout the game, that should take nothing away from a West Brom side who were committed, bold and executed a clear tactical plan to deny Arsenal space in the middle and force them wide. In attack, they caused Arsenal more problems than most visitors to the Emirates will this season, and they capitalised on their chances with a ruthlessness in stark contrast to their hosts’ lackadaisical finishing.

Wenger was at a loss to explain the poverty of his team’s performance after the exhilarating win over Spurs in midweek, during which most of today’s starting eleven had been rested:

We made it more difficult because we were not at our usual level. Not defensively, not offensively. Overall everything was difficult for us today – passing the ball, winning the ball back, winning the one against ones – and we got what we deserved which was zero points. We didn’t deserve more. The positive is that we did fight until the last minute but it was just not good enough at that level to get three points. It is the first real bad performance [of the season] and it is unexplainable how bad the whole thing looked for the whole game.

Inevitably the goalkeeping position will once again come under scrutiny, with Almunia at fault for both the second and third goals. Wenger refused to single out the Spanish keeper for blame, although he was somewhat equivocal in defending a goalkeeper who is widely considered to be the weakest link in the team:

You can have question marks about many players today if you look at the performance, especially the defensive one. Many players made massive mistakes defensively. I do not want to come out on any individual performances because we were collectively poor. You could single out a few players who have made mistakes.

Full backs Sagna and Gaël Clichy both endured poor games. Such sub-par performances are becoming increasingly commonplace for the latter, whose starting berth must surely now be under increasing threat from Kieran Gibbs, once his understudy has recovered from a minor foot injury sustained on Tuesday. And Diaby, who so often looks great when Arsenal are in confident, attacking mode, was yet again conspicuous by his absence when required to stamp some authority on a struggling team performance. These three were not Arsenal’s only poor performers on an afternoon where only Nasri – despite completing five hours of competitive football across three games in the space of a week – showed the consistent invention, drive and application which will be required as the players embark on a long run of two-a-week fixtures which extends through to mid-November.

Despite the histrionics, vitriol and general end-of-the-world-is-nighedness which flooded the internet during and in the immediate aftermath of the match, defeat hardly constitutes a mortal blow to Arsenal’s title aspirations. With Chelsea also losing and less than one-sixth of the season completed thus far, there is still all to play for. A missed opportunity? Of course. The sort of game that aspiring contenders do not lose, as many near-suicidal voices have been trumpeting over the last few hours? Give me a break. I can clearly recall a humbling home defeat to Blackburn – a performance far worse than today’s – which proved to be a turning point in a triumphant march to the 1997/98 League and Cup double. And didn’t Manchester United lose both games a few seasons back to a West Ham side who escaped relegation only by beating the champions on the final day of the season?

Freak defeats happen; they are part of the warp and weft which make up the fabric of football. Wenger alluded to this himself when he said:

I believe that today’s game was an exception – until today we had very, very good games. I didn’t recognise my team today and we have to sit down together to analyse what happened. Something is unexplanable in such a poor performance. It is always difficult to [sense it before the game] but something was not right and it is unusual to see a team as flat as we were today.

It is not the defeat itself or even its cause – after the Lord Mayor’s show? complacency? – which is the most critical aspect in assessing Arsenal’s title credentials. What matters most is how the team responds to this. If complacency was a contributing factor to this afternoon’s setback, then it is important that the team learns from this and approaches every game with the same level of intensity, no matter how ‘easy’ it may seem.

After a Champions League jaunt to play Partizan Belgrade on Tuesday, next up will be a trip to defending champions Chelsea next Sunday in a game which will give a much truer reflection of Arsenal’s standing in the title race. There is little chance of complacency creeping in for that game, however. The title race proper starts here.

The week in numbers: w/e 15/8/10

Martin O

5 – None of the five league clubs Martin O’Neill has managed has sacked him – he has left each of them on his own terms (Wycombe Wanderers, Norwich City, Leicester City, Celtic, Aston Villa).

40 – O’Neill won 40% of his games in charge of Aston Villa, 1% fewer than the much-derided (and much less well-funded) John Gregory.

9.78 – Time recorded by Tyson Gay in winning the 100 metres at the Diamond League meeting in London on Friday night. It is the fastest time in the world this year.

11Andy Roddick has fallen to number 11 in the ATP men’s singles rankings, meaning the USA do not have a player in the top ten for the first time since 1973.

Roger Federer

210 – In his first match since losing at Wimbledon in June, Roger Federer beat Juan Ignacio Chela in straight sets at the Rogers Open in Toronto to record his 210th match victory in ATP Masters tournaments, moving him ahead of Andre Agassi in the all-time winners list.

1Andy Murray‘s 7-5 7-5 win over Federer in the final of the Rogers Open last night was his first tournament win of 2010.

42 – Age of Antonio Pettigrew, the 1991 400 metres world champion, who was found dead on Tuesday in his car with sleeping pills next to him at the University of North Carolina, where he was a coach. He leaves a wife and son.

Adam Stansfield, 1978-2010 (image courtesy of exetercityfc.co.uk)

31 – Age of Adam Stansfield, the Exeter City striker who died from bowel cancer on Tuesday.

62 – Age of Markus Liebherr, Swiss businessman and owner of Southampton FC, who died on Wednesday.

The Premier League week in numbers

89:36 – Time on the clock when Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina inadvertently bundled the ball into his own net to gift Arsenal the equalising goal in a 1-1 draw at yesterday.

1,200 – Reina’s own goal was Arsenal’s 1,200th Premier League goal.

6Didier Drogba has scored six goals in his last two Premier League starts, with his hat-trick against West Brom coming after he had bagged three in Chelsea‘s 8-0 win over Wigan on the final day of last season.

7 – Drogba became the seventh player to score a hat-trick on the opening weekend since the inception of the Premier League (before which, as we all know, football didn’t really exist, did it?), but the first to do so on the opening Saturday since Dion Dublin in 1997, when he scored three for Coventry against … Chelsea. He is also only the fourth player to score consecutive Premier League hat-tricks.

14 – Chelsea have scored 14 goals without conceding in their last two league games (8-0 vs Wigan, 6-0 vs West Brom).

12 – Wigan have conceded 12 goals without scoring in their last two league games (0-8 vs Chelsea, 0-4 vs Blackpool).

4 – Blackpool only had four shots in their debut Premier League game – and their first top-flight game since 1971 – at Wigan, but scored from all four.

19 – Both Fulham and West Ham have now gone 19 Premier League games – the equivalent of an entire season – without an away win.

26 – West Brom’s defeat at Stamford Bridge broke a run of 26 consecutive games in which they had scored.

697 – This weekend saw the 697th Premier League game for the division’s seven ever-present clubs: Man U, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Everton.

(Some statistics courtesy of @OptaJoe@optajim and @StatManJon.)

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