Arsenal may no longer be the most exciting team in London but they ground their way back up past Chelsea and Tottenham and into third place with an unconvincing but efficient 1-0 win over Queens Park Rangers.
Having been far too fragile and callow for years, Arsene Wenger’s side seems to have undergone a character transformation this season. They now resemble some unwieldy red machine, winning games with very admirable consistency but providing little of the entertainment or aesthetics for which they have become famous.
This was Arsenal’s ninth win from 12 games, but they did the minimum required to take the three points. But after recent narrow away wins at Sunderland, Swansea, West Bromwich Albion and Fulham, this is something that they are now rather good at.
For 89 minutes of this game Arsenal looked slow, flat and tired. Fortunately for them, though, they got their best work in first. Theo Walcott put Arsenal ahead after just 20 seconds – the fastest goal of the Premier League season – before Rangers had time to settle. From then on it was an even game, with the relegated hosts at least as dangerous. As hard as Harry Redknapp’s side tried, though, they just could not make up for the early damage.
It started when Armand Traore misjudged a header from Laurent Koscielny’s diagonal ball. Tomas Rosicky took possession on the right hand side, made some space and chipped the ball back to Aaron Ramsey on the edge of the box. Ramsey controlled it, found midfield parter Mikel Arteta who slid in Theo Walcott, who turned sharply and finished into the far bottom corner, for his 20th goal of the season.
That was Arsenal’s peak, though, and they did not play as well again for the rest of the game. “I can’t remember scoring that early,” Arsene Wenger said afterwards. “Unfortunately I waited for the second goal but it never came.”
After taking the lead, Arsenal lacked the incision to score a second – although Walcott hit the post from the edge of the box - but also the control of midfield to absolutely rule out a Rangers equaliser. The hosts ran hard enough to create openings, Ji Sung-Park and Tal Ben Haim forcing first-half saves from Wojciech Szczesny.
“I expected a difficult game and I was not disappointed,” said Wenger. “QPR played with quality and pride and fearlessly, they made life difficult for us.”
Rangers continued to do just that after the break, Andros Townsend – again their most dangerous player – nearly wrong-footing Szczesny with a swerving shot from distance, while Bobby Zamora was denied by Koscielny when he was about to head in Townsend’s free-kick.
“We showed fantastic spirit today,” said Harry Redknapp. “Their heads could have dropped after that start, but they put in a shift and were fantastic, I was really pleased with their display.”
Arsenal eventually woke up, knowing that those crucial three points were at risk, Cazorla and Walcott testing Green from distance, but Rangers finished the stronger. There might have been a penalty for a pull on Zamora by Koscielny, before Rangers made their best chance.
Loic Remy, quiet until the 80th minute, curled a shot towards the far bottom corner and Szczesny had to dive at full stretch to turn it round the post. Redknapp described it as “world class” and it was a reminder of just how good Szczesny can be.
But Arsenal held on for a crucial win, maintaining their two-point lead over their more entertaining London rivals.
“We needed a special focus to win,” said Wenger. “We played a little bit conscious that the points were vital for us, so we couldn’t make a mistake, but we were defensively very sound, very focused and very intelligent.”
It is still not quite in Arsenal’s hands, but that will not distract them. “We have to win our games, we can only focus on that. We must prepare for the next one and win again.”
QPR (4-4-2): Green; Ben Haim, Onuoha, Hill, Traoré (Fabio, 90); Townsend, Jenas, Mbia (Derry, h-t), Park (Taarabt, 78); Remy, Zamora.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Arteta, Ramsey; Walcott, Rosicky (Vermaelen, 90), Cazorla (Wilshere, 89); Podolski (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 84).
Referee Jon Moss.
Man of the match Koscielny (Arsenal).
Match rating 4/10.