Birmingham City 0 – 3 Arsenal: Van Persie 13, Nasri 58, Johnson (og) 65
It was once accepted that to beat Arsenal, you had take a physical approach. Not anymore. Granted, the Gunners still have their vulnerabilities to the high ball and the opponent which would have displayed just how far they have come in both respects, Stoke, had their match called off due to adverse weather conditions. That weakness is particularly highlighted by the statistic that Arsenal have conceded 45% of their league goals from set-pieces – the most in the league – therefore it was quite surprising that Alex McLeish didn’t start 6ft 8in striker, Nikola Žigić, in their 3-0 defeat to Arsenal. That left Birmingham opting to take a rugged approach but in their wanton intimidation, Arsenal’s technical superiority came out tops.
Ales Song was once again crucial to the side’s success against such normally robust opponents as he delivered, yet again, an assured and tireless performance following his exerts against Chelsea. His graft in the double-pivot role means he is able to win the ball higher up the pitch and as a result, alleviate the pressure that would normally be exerted on the defence were he to assume a deeper position.
Birmingham’s tactics, however, were not entirely ineffective. They managed to accrue their share of possession – 50% in fact – and their hassling and harrying, especially in the first-half and on a bumpy pitch, knocked Arsenal’s fluency somewhat. That was not the case in the second-half, though, as Arsène Wenger’s side knocked the ball around with much elegance, and ease also. If the link up between Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri for the second goal was sumptuous enough, they made it look like a walk in the park for the third.
It seems that now Wenger has finally settled on a preferred line-up after the 3-1 win over Chelsea and was pleased by how his side reacted to the disruptive tactics of Birmingham. “This was a very physical game but our persistence in getting the ball down and playing our game gradually took over,” said the manager. “We were always composed, especially at the back, and composure on the ball is very important. It is a form of bravery to get the ball down and play and we tried to do it all the time, even under pressure. That’s where I was most pleased because it shows the players believe in what we are trying to do. The positive effect of the Chelsea result was there for all to see. We are ready for the fight. The belief is strong and now it is down to us to show mental stamina.”
The team was fresh and the performance at a ground where many of the top teams struggle, highlights that they have reaped the rewards of being rested in midweek. Some have argued Wenger made one to many changes in the 2-2 with Wigan Athletic and indeed, rotation, or rather effective rotation, will be key to how Arsenal challenge for honours this season. Eight changes was always going to be at a risk of losing the side’s fluency and it showed as only an Andrey Arshavin inspired five minutes were the best Arsenal could muster. To be fair to Wenger, half of the changes were enforced; Cesc Fábregas was suspended, Johan Djourou has trouble playing two games, let alone three in a week and Gael Clichy, and to a lesser extent Samir Nasri, gained some sort of knock against Chelsea. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out as Arsenal conceded two points in the title race but it meant they could be fresh for what was anticipated to be the tougher fixture of the two. Nevertheless, it had been felt Wenger had sent out a strong enough side against Wigan to get the three points.
Rotation is necessary in today’s game and with the Premier League acknowledging the necessity of the squad with the introduction of the 25-man squad rule this season, there was no doubt Arsenal could not be accused of devaluing a league fixture. Wolves manager, Mick McCarthy, who was fined for sending out a weakened side knowing that his chances of winning a statistically unlikely game against Manchester United were lessened, intimated so:
“I read an article where Carlo Ancelotti had said that the risk of injury in one game is 10%. And then that goes up to 30% or 40% if another intensive game follows in three or four days. We believe that anyway, but that came from the Milan Lab research centre set up by AC Milan.”
Jose Mourinho’s former fitness coach at Chelsea, Rui Faria, further explains:
“Normally you change three players, four maximum, without losing the structure and balance of the team. A left-back for a left-back, a right-winger for a right-winger. The question is to know your team well and the performance of the player in that moment. And then you select which player is better for that game, according to the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents.
“You need to be well prepared and you need a good management of his condition. The only moment when it’s really difficult is where you have game after game after game in a short period. Then you need to manage well, to recover well and to give condition to the players.”
The impressiveness of Arsenal’s performance bears no coincidence with the fact that Arsenal are structurally more solid and mentally more focused now. Cesc Fábregas was imperious on Saturday evening and his body language is infinitely more jovial and buoyant than at the start of the season. The discarding on Arshavin from the line-up strips Arsenal of their impact player but gives the side more defensive balance. Gael Clichy has looked better due to the better protection he has been provided by Nasri while Theo Walcott’s energy and tracking back has always been understated. In the 4-2-3-1, Samir Nasri has also been able to reap the rewards of the greater solidity as opposed to what was essentially a 4-1-4-1 last season and as Wenger has noted, can go “much more in the final third” because he once played a bit too deep. Robin van Persie put Arsenal in front and although it was still a rusty van Persie, he showed glimpses of what makes him so important to Arsenal. His movement allows the midfielders to break forward and his hold-up play brings others into play. At the back, it was another assured performance from Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny and the clean sheet goes some way in proving Arsenal can mix it with the rough stuff as well as the intricate.