Arsenal 3 Birmingham City 1
At at least one juncture in an average season, you`re going to drop cheap points at home to opposition you shouldn`t. Birmingham of course have previous here, having wrested four points from our grip two seasons ago that were the death knell of our title bid. It is the argot of the football fan to be overly enthused by a winning run as well as to be over damning of a losing one, so I think my sense of caution going into the match was designed to bring karmic restoration to the plangent sense of optimism around the result. It`s the kind of liturgy only the football fan is capable of. Nevertheless, the team selection contained some surprises and was obviously informed by who had come back from the international break full of beans and who was running on empty. So Arshavin and Sagna obviated the first hint of autumn chill in warm bench jackets; leaving Eboue and Rosicky starting.
Some of the potentially spiky milieu of the game was removed as both Eduardo and Martin Taylor were unavailable through injury. Predictably the Brum looked to keep it tight with Cameron Jerome ploughing a lone furrow upfront. Liam Ridgewell`s stiff challenge on Walcott in the opening minutes caused the first intake of breath of the afternoon; whilst he received treatment the visiting support reminded us there was "only one Martin Taylor" in their nasal patois. Walcott got to his feet gingerly and almost opened the scoring; Fabregas spread the ball to him on the right hand side, Ridgewell, possibly remembering how Walcott had motored past him from the right at St. Andrews two years ago, went for a full blooded challenge again but Theo nicked the ball past him and sprinted down the right, overcooked a cross slightly which Joe Hart had to readjust his feet to turn over the bar. Arsenal were warming up with some patient build up play and were soon in the lead. Ferguson could only clear Rosicky`s cross as far as Alex Song, who showed great sangfroid to move the ball slightly inside and deliver a slide rule pass to van Persie, despite the ball clipping the back of his heel initially, van Persie shifted his feet in double quick time before blasting it low into the corner. That kids, is why we put him in the penalty area.
Within two minutes, Arsenal`s probing passing would pay off once more. Fabregas passed the ball into van Persie with his back to goal, the Dutchman switched play to Eboue on the right, but instead of slinging in an aimless cross, he found the run of Rosicky to the by line, Rosicky pulled the ball back for the onrushing Diaby to find the top corner with a neat left foot finish. It is the sort of football that Arsenal are best at and displayed beautifully the fluidity our new formation has bought us. It also showed the value of cool, experienced heads in the decision making as Eboue calmly waited for the pass, Rosicky calmly pulled back. It was the kind of destructive football we didn`t see enough of last season, predominantly I feel because the temptation would have been for Eboue to sling the ball towards Adebayor in the area and hope for a header. With van Persie the new focal point of attack, Arsenal have more guile. But complacency has always been Arsenal`s modus Vivendi for occasions such as these when the game looks to be won early on and they switched off lamentably to let Birmingham back into the game. Barry Ferguson`s cross was looped up into the air by Diaby, Mannone was again slow off his line and unconvincing in the air, dropping the ball under the fair challenge of Larsson, Diaby too had switched off, allowing the bellicose Lee Bowyer to run off him and smash the rebound into the net. Mannone`s indecision in the penalty area should see Almunia reinstated for the next match.
Arsenal began the second half in something of a dreamy malaise and moments of nerves were detected from the stands for the first time. The Gunners are still far too open in their own half of the pitch, on the handful of occasions Birmingham had possession in our half, they more often than not had more attackers than we had defenders which is a situation that cannot continue. We will get away with it at home to Birmingham and Blackburn, but better teams will punish our lack of collective responsibility. The inertia seemed to have been shaken when Arshavin teamed up with Cesc on the right and his cutback was slid back to his own keeper by Larsson, resulting in an indirect free kick ten yards out. Arshavin nudged the ball slightly too late for van Persie`s run up, causing the Dutchman to readjust his feet and side foot the ball against the crossbar. But the defensive naivety was again exposed when Bowyer`s right wing cross saw Ridgewell completely unmarked at the back post, he side footed a volley across goal which Mannone got down to and scooped out leaving Gallas to clear in a panic. Though Mannone did the job in the end, the lack of certainty pervading his actions and the eternity it took him to get down to the ball did not utterly convince and the defence looked panicked. Birmingham again attacked on the left flank and Ridgewell`s cross was swept up by Mannone who bowled the ball out to Cesc. Fabregas released Arshavin on the left and he nonchalantly swept the ball past Hart and secured the points when anxiety was beginning to rear its head. It was typical Arshavin, classy, simple, elegant and the first thing he`d done for about half an hour!
Arsenal nearly preserved their "four or more" tradition in home league matches when van Persie again teed up Eboue on the right and his cross was met by Diaby but Joe Hart kept his goal in tact with a fine reaction stop. In the end the win and the performance were acceptable. On an afternoon where United were again run close at home and when Chelsea and Liverpool lost, a 3-1 home win is not to be sniffed at by any stretch of the imagination. The problem of complacency when two goals up is an age old one for Arsenal and the focus dipped for large parts of the second half too. Better sides will punish our lack of concentration and Mannone does not seem to inspire the confidence of his back four due to his inexperience, which leads to shaky decision making. I would suggest the goalkeeping conundrum stops now for the manager and that Almunia is reinstated forthwith. Mannone has potential, but his nerves when the ball is in the air and the cumbersome way he comes off his line (or not) make for a nervous looking backline. Once again, going forward Arsenal were faultless if a little jaded at times in the second half, which I would probably regard as normal after an international break. A word again for Fabregas who again ran this game effortlessly with his probing passing. I really feel we have begun to take for granted just how special a player he is. But the gaps we leave in our own half will have to be plugged as tougher assignments await.LD.
Team: 24.MANNONE, 27.EBOUE (19.Wilshere 90), 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 28.GIBBS, 17.SONG, 4.FABREGAS(c), 2.DIABY, 14.WALCOTT (23.Arshavin 33), 7.ROSICKY (3.Sagna 72), 11.v.PERSIE. Unused: 1.Almunia, 16.Ramsey, 18.Silvestre, 30.Traore.