WBA 0-1 Arsenal: Is Arsene Wenger trialling a formation to suit Theo Walcott?

Arsenal celebrate after Danny Welbeck's goal at West Brom

I was intrigued by Arsenal’s starting XI at West Brom. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was afforded a rest, so Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez both started on either side of Olivier Giroud. It was a proper front three, with the two wider forwards frequently rotating and drifting in to the centre to join the Frenchman.

Welbeck performed extremely well in what’s a familiar role to him. He created the most goalscoring opportunities of any Arsenal player, completed the most sprints, and racked up the third-highest passing accuracy in the opposition half. More importantly, he got the winning goal with an excellent header to end his brief barren run.

However, his long-term place in the team is far from guaranteed. Debate has recently focused on the duel between Welbeck and Giroud. Watching him at West Brom, I wondered if his real competition might yet come from Theo Walcott.

The fluid front three system Wenger trialled at the Hawthorns seems ideally suited to Walcott’s attributes. He could switch wings with Alexis Sanchez, roving infield to play off Giroud when appropriate. He doesn’t offer as much defensive cover as Welbeck, but is historically more productive in the penalty area. Welbeck will have to improve his goalscoring ratio if he is to see off Walcott on his return to fitness. My hunch is that, as last season, Wenger sees Giroud as a crucial cog in his first-choice XI.

Having Giroud and Laurent Koscielny available certainly makes the squad feel a lot stronger at both ends of the pitch. It might be a strange time to say it after Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal both picked up knocks at the Hawthorns, but I’m almost wondering if strengthening the midfield might become a bigger priority than adding to the defence come January.

With Debuchy getting closer to a comeback, we do at least have Chambers and Monreal who can offer a measure of cover at centre-half. At present, Mathieu Flamini is the only fit holding midfielder. Impressive though he was at West Brom, his erratic form this season suggests he’s not the reliable alternative to Mikel Arteta we require.

Our next opponents are a lesson in the importance of that ‘DM’ role. With Morgan Schneiderlin anchoring their midfield, they’ve had the best defensive record in the Premier League this season. It was telling that all three goals Manchester City scored against them this weekend came after his withdrawal with injury. Let’s hope it keeps him out for Wednesday too.

Taking it a game at a time

Well, that was much more like it. Borussia Dortmund might be struggling in the Bundesliga, but they remain a team packed with individual quality. A 2-0 win is undoubtedly something to celebrate.

A lot was made of the difference between our performance against United and Dortmund. In reality, I think the biggest differentiator was the opening goal. Had we not scored in the first couple of minutes, there’s nothing to say we wouldn’t have gone on to attack with the reckless abandon we did against United. Had we gone behind… well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Nevertheless, it’s still good to focus on the positives, of which there were many. Arsenal’s main stars were the understudies: Emi Martinez and Yaya Sanogo shone in the absence of Wojciech Szczesny, Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck. Sanogo’s goal does not thrust him in to regular first-team contention, but it does get both a monkey and the fans off his back.

Arsenal being Arsenal, the elation didn’t last long. Within minutes of the full-time whistle, Arsene Wenger had confirmed injuries to both Sanogo and Mikel Arteta. The following day, news broke that Jack Wilshere had undergone surgery that will see him miss the next 3 months.

It’s hard to feel surprised by a prolonged Wilshere lay-off anymore. It’s like death, taxes or Robbie Savage saying something stupid: it just happens and there appears to be little anyone can do about it. It was a poor challenge from McNair, and few would have survived it unscathed. However, I do wonder if Wilshere’s tendency to hold on to the ball too long invites such clatterings. His bravery on the ball is admirable, but costly. Something for him to contemplate during his lay-off, perhaps.

The Wilshere news rather pulled the rug of positivity out from under our feet. I suspect that’s a feeling we may have to get used to this season.

Personally, I’m just taking it a game at a time. With the Premier League title beyond us, it’s already tempting to view this as season as a write-off. That’s a horribly depressing outlook. I find the only way to avoid that is to embrace the present and try to enjoy the ride. Go from game to game, savour the wins, and keep your eyes on the immediate foreground rather than the horizon. There may not be anything for us in May, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to deliver some memorable moments along the way.

Next up, West Brom.

WBA 1-1 Arsenal: Ozil looks to be more Bergkamp than Fabregas

WBA 1 – 1 Arsenal
Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This was a good point…
Arsenal responded well to a relatively unfamiliar challenge: this was the first time we have fallen behind in the match since the 3-1 victory over Norwich earlier this year. With the additions of Amalfitano and Sessegon, West Brom look an enterprising and athletic team. Their victory over Manchester United was no fluke, and they’ll take several more big scalps this season. Come the end of the season, I’m confident that Arsenal will look back on this one as a point gained.

Arsenal’s winning streak may be over but our unbeaten run continues. In a topsy-turvy Premier League, consistency is King.

If I were in charge, I would’ve taken Jack Wilshere off at half-time…
…so it’s a good job I’m not. Wilshere responded to his dreadful first-half display with real guts. Switching to the centre, he immediately improved and by the end of the ninety minutes was arguably our most dangerous player. As well as grabbing the crucial equaliser, he also produced the pass of the match to find Olivier Giroud free in the penalty area. Unfortunately, Giroud was denied by Myhill.

While Wilshere deserves credit for his second half turnaround, I do wish he wouldn’t spent quite as much time sat on the floor pleading with the referee. Wilshere does get kicked a lot, but not half as much as he claims. If he continues to protest every single challenge, the really dangerous tackles will be lost amid his whining.

Carl Jenkinson’s greatest weakness is arguably his aerial ability…
Jenkinson is a versatile defender but has never been deployed by Arsene Wenger as a centre-back. Yesterday we saw why. Despite his height, Jenkinson is poor in the air: he lacks spring and his timing is often curiously off. Yesterday he struggled under  several high balls, and failed to get anywhere near Claudio Yacob as the Argentine nodded in the opening goal.

It’s an area in which Jenkinson compares particularly poorly with his rival Bacary Sagna, who probably deserves more credit for his outstanding aerial ability.

Ozil is not dominating games as you might expect…
While the German is not yet dictating our tempo, he never fails to produce one or two moments of pure magic in every game. At this stage, he is more Bergkamp than Fabregas; more gifted soloist than conductor.

In this match, there were two sumptuous slide-rule passes in to the feet of Aaron Ramsey and Kieran Gibbs. I also enjoyed his contribution to our equalising goal, out-muscling Mulumbu deep inside our half before spraying a long ball forward to launch the move. When you look at our recent goals, his contribution tends to be key.

The international break comes at a good time…
…and not just because it guarantees we’ll retain top spot for a fortnight. It gives a worryingly thin Arsenal squad the chance to add on some bulk. Santi Cazorla is set to return after the break, with Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott not far behind. Options will be key ahead of a sequence of difficult fixtures in October and November. Thus far, I’ve avoided any pronouncements about what this Arsenal squad might be capable of this season. I’m cautiously optimistic, but we’ll have a far clearer picture come the end of November.

WBA 1 – 2 Arsenal: Rosicky the run-in expert to the rescue

WBA 1 – 2 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Tomas Rosicky is a bit like Wigan. Or blossom. Come spring, he comes to life.

It’s freezing in England. Going by the weather, you’d be forgiven for thinking we were still gripped by midwinter. A more accurate calendar is created by the form of Wigan and Rosicky. The changing of the seasons is more reliably marked by the sight of an energetic Czech midfielder darting about the Premier League than it is by any shift in weather patterns.

If Rosicky ever does leave Arsenal, perhaps he should consider joining Roberto Martinez’s side. With their powers combined they could probably go from relegation strugglers to title-challengers between March and the end of May.

For now, Arsene Wenger is eager to keep him. It’s easy to see why. Arsenal have players with greater technical gifts, but few who marry those gifts with such a degree of hard work and commitment.

Goals have been hard to come by for Rosicky, but the double he scored at the Hawthorns showed a rare predatory instinct. His first was a diving header to divert a wild strike from Gervinho. The Ivorian received praise from some for an ‘assist’, which I think might be putting it a bit strongly. Whilst Gervinho’s direct style and clever footwork certainly contributed to the goal, only Rosicky’s intervention transformed a miscued shot in to an effective cross.

His second goal was also reliant on lightning reactions. Aaron Ramsey broke well and crossed to find the number seven. After his first shot was saved by Ben Foster, Rosicky raced on to the rebound and fired smartly in to the corner.

From that point on it should have been a comfortable Arsenal victory, but that’s just not our style. With 20 minutes to go, Per Mertesacker was dismissed for a clumsy tackle as the last man. James Morrison converted the resulting penalty, and suddenly Arsenal found themselves very much under the cosh.

In their panic, Arsenal were completely incapable of retaining possession. Arsenal invited West Brom on to them, and only luck and last-ditch defended prevented the Baggies from finding an equaliser. This fixture was our final game of last season, and will be remembered for Arsene Wenger clinging nervously to Pat Rice. This game was every bit as finely balanced, and you could have forgiven Arsene for seeking a hug from the far less cuddly Steve Bould.

The last passage of the game was summed up by the final few seconds of stoppage time, as Ben Foster was allowed to dribble fully forty yards up the pitch unchallenged before launching a long ball in to our penalty area.

Fortunately, Arsenal survived. Few wins this season have been as satisfactory. It was gritty, it was grubby, and it was great. The three points take us in to the top four, with the onus now firmly on Spurs and Chelsea in their games tomorrow.

The continuing progress of our rivals in the Europa League means this pattern will be repeated between now and the end of the season. We will have more opportunities to take the initiative and crank up the pressure on the other two London clubs.

Since losing the Derby at Spurs, Arsenal have won four games, scoring ten goals and conceding just two. We have the momentum, and we have Tomas Rosicky.

The omens are good. We just need to keep it going.

Arsenal 2 – 0 WBA: Divers are already retrospectively punished

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Divers are already retrospectively punished…
Yes, Santi dived.  Yes, it was ugly.  And no, I don’t want it happening again.  That said, you won’t hear me lambasting him for it.  There are two reasons: the first is that we’re so desperate for points at the moment that I’ll take them however we can get them.  The second is that, unlike the majority of pundits, I don’t find diving to be the great corrupting evil of our game.  In fact, I’d far sooner see a player dive than commit a dangerous two-footed tackle.  It seems an odd quirk of our culture and its latent obsession with a neanderthal interpretation of masculinity that we’re more accepting of physical violence than a bit of cunning.  Fundamentally, I believe players are entitled to leap out of the way of a tackle.  There is no obligation to take the hit and get hurt.

That, I suspect, is exactly what Cazorla was attempting: to anticipate contact and exaggerate it to guarantee the decision.  Rather embarrassingly for him, the contact never came, and his subsequent leap and tumble can only ever be called a dive.  In an ideal world, the ref spots it and hands Cazorla a yellow card.  Unfortunately, the referee in this case was having a ninety minutes littered with incompetence, and made a poor decision.  You have to feel for West Brom, but few clubs are whiter-than-white here.  The Baggies themselves tried to win a penalty after a laughable dive from Markus Rosenberg.

There is outcry about the lack of retrospective punishment for divers.  I’m not sure I agree.  One need only have watched the second half to see the FA’s unspoken judiciary system in place.  Cazorla dribbled between four tackles, before being clearly fouled on the edge of the box: no free-kick.  This punishment can last longer than just one game – simply ask Gareth Bale, who has been booked twice recently for ‘dives’ when any other player would have won a free-kick.  In this age of television replays, the reputation earned becomes the punishment.  Santi will be lucky to win another penalty this season.

This was a much better Arsenal display…
We ought to have scored at least four goals, and looked relatively comfortable at the back too.  The midfield of Cazorla, Wilshere and Arteta looked so much better for a rest, and the latter showed just what a ballsy character he is with two no-nonsense penalties.  The English pair of Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain had their best games of the season.  I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that Chamberlain can put together a run of form to allay some of the concerns about Theo Walcott’s inevitable departure.

I occasionally wonder just what the other players make of Gervinho…
The Ivorian had one of his better games on Saturday.  He was energetic, hard-working and covered huge areas of the pitch.  However, his decision-making, final ball and finishing will always leave a lot to be desired.  In fact, the most reliable thing about Gervinho is that I will be complaining about him after the game.  When he missed from six yards out, Lukas Podolski, who was warming up on the sidelines, held his face in his hands for a good five seconds.  Little did he know he’d trump Gervinho with an even more outrageous miss after coming on as a substitute.

Olivier Giroud needs a goal again…
The Frenchman was desperate to take the second penalty, and not at all happy about Mikel Arteta asserting his authority and taking the kick himself.  When Arteta scored, Giroud turned and trudged back to the centre-circle as the rest of the team celebrated.  It was a little stroppy, and the mark of a player who is starting to feel the pressure again after failing to score in his last five appearances.

Arsenal are now just two points off fourth spot…
…whilst Chelsea’s mini blip means we’re only five points off third.  We’re in the fortunate position of being in direct competition with teams which are as flawed as our own.  If we can get it together, Champions League qualification is still very much within our grasp.

That said, it was painful seeing RVP clinch the Manchester derby…
That’s what football ought to be about.  Those glorious moments when you pinch victory in a table-topping clash thanks to your star player.  We had a player like that.  We sold him.  Still, look at that bank balance.  Lovely.