Arsenal 3 (van Persie 16, Diaby 18, Arshavin 84)
Birmingham (Bowyer 38)
Arsene Wenger and his men successfully navigated a tricky post-International break fixture against Birmingham by posting a comprehensive if not completely comfortable 3-1 win at Emirates Stadium.
Robin van Persie and Abou Diaby scored excellent early goals to set our boys on their way but a goalkeeping mistake by Vito Mannone allowed Birmingham back into the game just before the break. And despite us having the better of the second half the game was never truly safe until Andrey Arshavin scored to re-establish our two-goal lead and allow the team and the crowd to breath easy for the final few minutes.
With the international “break” ensuring our squad returned with their fair share of knocks and niggles, Wenger made some clever alterations the starting team. In came Kieran Gibbs and Emmanuel Eboue for Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna at the back while Theo Walcott got a first start of the season on the right wing with Tomas Rosicky recovering from the Czech Republic’s failure to qualify for the World Cup by starting on the left. Interestingly Vito Mannone kept his spot in goals despite Manuel Almunia’s return to the squad while Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas and Abou Diaby completed an excellent midfield triangle.
Unfortunately the most memorable part of the opening quarter of an hour was the potentially serious knee injury suffered by Walcott. Back into the starting team again after an extended absence, the Englishman was – fairly, mind you – clattered into by Liam Ridgewell. And although Walcott was up just a minute later and skipped past Ridgewell with a thrilling piece of skill before having his shot saved, the pain in his knee eventually saw him depart around the half-hour mark.
Despite Walcott’s knock, Arsenal positively exploded once van Persie found the back of the net in the 16th minute. Collecting an astute pass from The German of Africa, Alex Song (more on him later), the Dutchman controlled wonderfully before producing a superb finish. It was his fifth of the season, an admirable return after a fragmented start to the campaign.
His strike was followed soon after by a very Arsenalesque goal scored by Diaby. Some good team possession allowed Eboue and Rosicky to combine well down the right side before the Czech man’s low cross was sidefooted home into the corner by Diaby. On first viewing it seemed a routine finish but a second look revealed the craft of the Frenchman’s shot who removed the threat of an onrushing Joe Hart by placing it in the far corner.
If the boys expected to coast to a 2-0 lead at the break they were rudely interrupted by Lee Bowyer’s goal. Mannone elected to catch a high ball that really should have been punched and Leeds United’s Champions League hero from a decade ago was on hand to punish the Italian’s fumble. There was a hint of a foul on the goalkeeper but if it had been the other way I would have been furious to see the goal not given. So 2-1 it was at half-time and despite the goal conceded, it was a scoreline I would have taken before the game.
The second half was an interesting contest as our boys showed real signs of an International break hangover while Birmingham appeared galvanised by the goal. However despite the away side’s pressure they only really drew one save from Mannone while Arsenal made a couple of good chances, van Persie striking the bar with an indirect free-kick and Thomas Vermaelen having a header saved by Hart.
The game was made safe when Arshavin finished off a typical Arsenal break (how good it feels to say that again!) by calmly finishing into the far corner. 3-1, three points and despite a little bit of a bumpy ride, a fairly decent performance against a spirited Birmingham side.
The manager picked out Alex Song for special praise after the game – labeling the Cameroonian as a German of Africa because of he and his countrymen’s “strong bodies” – and I totally agree with his comments. Once again Song was the outstanding performer on the pitch, winning tackles, distributing well and rarely dwelling on the ball for longer than required. He has made an early claim to be Arsenal’s Player of the Season along with Thomas Vermaelen and although a number of other players are starting to up their game – most notably Robin van Persie – if the Cameroonian continues to play like this he will hard to look past. Great stuff.
Once again I was impressed with Wenger’s brave decision to rotate his squad after the international break. Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna were relied upon a little too heavily throughout last season and the manager’s willingness to bring in both Gibbs and Eboue to regularly replace them will undoubtedly pay dividends as the season progresses. It also gives the second-choice wing-back pairing opportunities to play their way back into the team and serves as a reminder to Clichy and Sagna that if they don’t maintain consistency and quality on a weekly basis then there are two players capable of displacing them at any time.
A prime example of Wenger’s seemingly fresh(ish) philosophy of rotating and replacing players who don’t perform is the current goalkeeping situation. A chest infection was the original reason given for Manuel Almunia’s absence from the side but the Spaniard’s position on the bench against Birmingham at the expense of Italian Vito Mannone has unsurprisingly revealed that reason to be something of an excuse to drop him after some poor performances earlier in the season. It will be interesting to see if Wenger will be equally as ruthless on young Mannone, who was undoubtedly at fault for Birmingham’s goal, and bring Almunia back into the side.
With Chelsea, Liverpool (hah) and Manchester City all dropping points after the international break it was an excellent weekend for Arsenal. We’re back in the top four and should we win our game in hand it would shoot us up to second, just one point behind leaders Manchester United and with the fiercest goal difference in the league. With second-from-bottom West Ham the next game up before what should be an epic London derby against Spurs, I fancy us to grab six points from the next two games and be sitting very pretty in a fortnight’s time.
Exclusive Interview with Cesc Fabregas in tomorrow’s post
Regular readers of the Arsenal FC Blog will know that I have been on holiday for the last week at the very lovely Hamilton Island. Those same people will also know that I promised a very special surprise for when I got back.
I can now announce that that surprise is an exclusive interview with Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas. The interview will be published tomorrow in a special post and I can assure you it will be an excellent read. A remark about Abou Diaby is particular interest while some comments about wanting to complete a university degree show what a balanced man our captain appears to be.
Anyway I’ll just leave you with that teaser for now – speak to you tomorrow.
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