The consolation for Arsène Wenger yesterday was that going a goal behind away from home to a resolute, well-organised team last season might well have been the prelude to a defeat rather than the kind of determined stand that his players took to win a point.
The pre-Christmas defeats at Carrow Road and at home to Swansea last season were the kind of results that meant Wenger’s players had so much to do in the last few weeks of the season to seal a fourth-place finish. Yesterday they returned to the top of the Premier League, albeit by the slender margin of goals scored, over Liverpool. And it could be worse: just look at Tottenham’s result.
Last season, Arsenal won this fixture four games into the unbeaten run that followed their defeat at White Hart Lane on 3 March. This time around they emerged with their 11-game unbeaten run intact, after Claudio Yacob gave West Bromwich Albion the lead, but there was enough sloppiness, in the first half in particular to give Wenger cause for concern that some of the bad old habits have not entirely gone away.
That was epitomised by the shifting fortunes of Jack Wilshere, who was selected by Wenger in spite of the strong words the Arsenal manager had for him following his cigarette-smoking episode last week. In the first half it looked like Wenger’s faith had been misplaced but he stuck with Wilshere after he was booked, and the Englishman responded with the equaliser, via a helpful deflection off Jonas Olsson.
How bad was Wilshere’s first half? The mitigating circumstances were that he was once again ordered out to the left side with Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini in the holding positions where Wenger is spoiled for choice. Injuries mean that is less the case when it comes to wide players and with Aaron Ramsey and Wilshere co-opted to play either side of Mesut Özil, it was the Englishman who looked less comfortable.
He gave the ball away too much and his clumsy tackle on Yacob just before half-time earned him a booking. There is the touch of the Wayne Rooney-temper about Wilshere when he is on a yellow card and frustrated with the level of his own performance. Indeed, he can look like a red card waiting to happen. There was a case for Wenger substituting him at half-time for his own benefit.
Wenger, however, persisted and Wilshere scored the goal that made the difference for Arsenal after a better second half. It was his first goal in the league since November 2010, a wait that has been compounded by the injury problems from which he has suffered – but a wait nonetheless. “I don’t think he’ll ever be a goalscorer,” Wenger said. “He is a player who can create chances and provide chances for others.”
It was Wenger’s belief that Wilshere was “fouled a lot” in the first half. “I don’t think he was fouled dirty but pushed over a lot and didn’t get the fouls.” It was not a performance that would have left Roy Hodgson in no doubt that he must select the midfielder against Montenegro on Friday in that crucial World Cup qualifier, but it certainly looks likely that a fit Wilshere will play alongside Steven Gerrard in place of Frank Lampard.
The move for his goal was begun by Özil who did well to win possession in his own half and work the ball forward. From there it went to Flamini, and on to Olivier Giroud before Tomas Rosicky finally guided it into the path of Wilshere for a shot that clipped Jonas Olsson on its way in.
It was not Giroud’s best day: he struck one close-range volley ludicrously wide and was well stopped by Boaz Myhill when he tried to go around the goalkeeper on 76 minutes.
As for West Brom, they might have won the game had Nicolas Anelka not miscontrolled a cross played slightly behind him by Stéphane Sessègnon after a surge forward by the latter two minutes after the break. Anelka slotted another shot from the left just wide of Wojciech Szczesny’s far post on 52 minutes, both of which he should have executed better.
Four points from two games against Manchester United and Arsenal is no bad return for the West Bromwich manager, Steve Clarke, whose side are in 12th place and were comfortable matching their opposition yesterday. Even Wenger seemed impressed, enthusing about West Brom’s “good players in every position” and Clarke’s “huge squad”.
There was another fine performance from the on-loan Morgan Amalfitano on the right wing, and between them Yacob and Youssouf Mulumbu underpinned the whole show in midfield. They were under the cosh somewhat in the final half an hour but there is no doubting that this is another capable side that their low-profile, smart manager has assembled.
When West Brom broke through to score three minutes from half-time it was not entirely unexpected. They had been plundering Arsenal’s left side for some time. Wilshere had a tendency to leave the area in front of Kieran Gibbs exposed and Amalfitano required no more encouragement. Mulumbu recycled a corner to Amalfitano on the right and his cross was met by Yacob at the near post to head in his first goal for the club.
“It is not just that we are getting results, it is that we are competing in these games,” Clarke said. Nine points from their first seven games is not the ideal return but there is obvious progress in the team. Saido Berahino started again and looked sharp, in fact he looks like the kind of player Wenger might want to sign one day. Olsson and Gareth McAuley in the centre of defence were comfortable.
For Wenger, there is the glow of going into the international break today as the Premier League leaders. After the turmoil that has characterised recent seasons it must come as some relief. “The mentality of the champion [you see] through the season,” he said. “We are only in October, in March and April you can show whether you have the mentality.”
They have Norwich City at home and Crystal Palace away before the second big test of the league season against Liverpool on 2 November. If they are still top of the table after that game, then it might be harder to keep a lid on the expectation.
West Brom (4-2-3-1): Myhill 7; Jones 6, McAuley 6, Olsson 6, Ridgewell 6; Yacob 7, Mulumbu 7; Amalfitano 7 (Brunt, 88), Sessegnon 7 (Morrison, 78), Berahino 6; Anelka 5 (Long, 69).
Substitutes not used: Daniels (gk), Popov, Rosenberg, Lugano.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny 6; Jenkinson 5, Mertesacker 6, Koscielny 6, Gibbs 6; Arteta 7, Flamini 6; Ramsey 6 (Rosicky, 58), Ozil 7, Wilshere 6; Giroud 5 (Bendtner, 84).
Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Vermaelen, Monreal, Miyaichi, Gnabry.
Booked: West Brom: Olsson Arsenal Flamini, Wilshere
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire)
Man of the match: Mulumbu
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