Ljungberg sparks Arsenal revival as Wenger signals time for a change

Arsenal 3 - Birmingham City 0
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Once upon a time, way back in the land of the invincibles, Highbury would have turned purple at the very thought of being five points behind the Premiership leaders. But come Saturday night, in the land of the unrecognisables, there was only red-faced relief that the Chelsea gap was still bridgeable and that they had finally seen a flash of the old Arsenal - the "old" one of almost a full month ago - in readiness for a week that could well define their season.

People do some very uncharacteristic things when the pressure is at its most cranium-crushing - Thierry Henry even smiled at one point - but the unlikeliest came from Arsène Wenger. For eight years, Wenger had stuck with his man between the sticks, never once dropping the No 1 as Sir Alex Ferguson went through them quicker than hairdryers.

But then the Frenchman snapped. Germany's Jens Lehmann was banished to the bench after failing to keep a clean sheet for his previous 10 games, making way for Spain's Manuel Almunia, the keeper whose first-minute howler at Old Trafford three days earlier had grounded the Arsenal teenagers until next year's League Cup.

A brave gamble by Wenger, then, and one that you might conclude paid off if you only ever cast your eyes down the goals-against column. But anyone whose focus was anywhere near the Clock End in the 68th minute on Saturday will wonder how Wenger can do anything else but turn back to Lehmann for tomorrow's must-win Champions' League encounter with Rosenborg and then for Sunday's must-also-win humdinger with Chelsea.

It wasn't just the fumble of Clinton Morrison's innocuous shot that made hearts leap through larynxes, but the amateurish body-positioning that allowed the ball to squirm towards the net. As the blood drained from Manuel's shaking head, it was just possible to hear Basil Fawlty saying: "I'm sorry, he's from Barcelona."

So why did Wenger do it then? As an "I'm-not-afraid-to-drop-anyone" signal to the rest of the first team, who one by one had been trawled through his office earlier in the week to hear his dissatisfaction at their performances? Probably, although we will never be sure as The Professor was not about to turn confessor. He did say "I have great respect for Jens", and that "Almunia has tremendous potential" (presumably in the same way that Mount Helena has "tremendous potential"). But as for answers, maybe Lehmann's inability to command his area, resulting in 50 per cent of goals conceded this season coming tellingly from set-pieces? Not on your Nelly. Arsène wasn't about to be that uncharacteristic.

He was on much more familiar footing praising his side's second Premiership victory in seven. It may have been nothing like convincing - Steve Bruce's lament that "3-0 flattered them" was hard to argue with - but the fact remains that Arsenal's confidence is shot and they are simply not playing well. "For me the real test of this team today was more about the mental side than the footballing side," Wenger said. "It was satisfying to think that we conceded no goals, scored three. Now maybe we can start again."

If anyone did kick-start this burgeoning revival it was Freddie Ljungberg, whose tireless urgings guided Arsenal through a decidedly uncomfortable half hour before the Swede's dogged persistence in the area set up Robert Pires to snap-shoot home the scrappy opener which did so much to calm home nerves. "Freddie was fantastic today and he's a fantastic character," Wenger enthused. "When you're feeling a bit flat he's just what you need."

And after Almunia's aberration, a helping of vintage Henry proved just as intoxicating. Wenger had asked Henry "to play more as a centre-forward", which was perhaps an odd request to the League's leading goalscorer, but his manager felt "Thierry was playing too much as the provider" (as evidence, the French international also leads the Premiership assist charts). In a tight affair this upfield role had inevitably taken the star attraction out of the limelight but in the 80th minute he burst into it as only he can.

Collecting the ball just inside the opposing half from Patrick Vieira, Henry's flick and turn left Kenny Cunningham on his backside and then a gliding waltz into the box had Mario Melchiot chasing air, before he opened his stance and drilled it past the befuddled Maik Taylor. Six minutes later, his header off Ljungberg's quite wonderful cross showed the versatility of the man and indeed the team.

That was undoubtedly harsh on Birmingham. The indefatigable Robbie Savage gave Vieira a torrid afternoon, which probably had the Arsenal captain looking quite forward to his enforced two-match rest, but when you are creating as few chances as Birmingham are then Lady Luck is rarely going to be in your corner. "We are going to be one of the 10 teams battling it out for relegation," Bruce admitted. "If we didn't know we were in a long, hard fight before, we do now." Arsenal, it seems, have already knuckled down for theirs.

Goals: Pires 33 (1-0); Henry 80 (2-0); Henry 86 (3-0).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Lauren, Campbell, Touré, Cole; Ljungberg, Vieira, Fabregas (Flamini, 72), Pires; Reyes (Clichy, 67), Henry. Substitutes not used: Lehmann, Senderos, Owusu-Abeyie.

Birmingham City (4-4-1-1): Maik Taylor; Melchiot (Martin Taylor, 81), Cunningham, Upson, Clapham; Johnson, Savage, Anderton (Gronkjaer, 57), Gray; Dunn (Morrison, 67); Heskey. Substitutes not used: Bennett, Yorke.

Referee: D Gallagher (Oxfordshire).

Booked: None.

Man of the match: Ljungberg.

Attendance: 38,064.