Arsenal completed their trio of festive fixtures and rung in the New Year with an emphatic win at St Andrews which keeps them well up with the pace at the top of the table.
The Christmas and New Year period is always a testing time as the games come thick and fast. Going into the three games over the holidays, most Arsenal supporters would probably have settled for seven points from a possible nine but, after the team produced such a magnificent victory over Chelsea, it was disappointing that they let themselves down at Wigan two days later. The win at Birmingham today though got the team back on track and was a great confidence booster ahead of the visit of Manchester City to Ashburton Grove on Wednesday night.
Robin Van Persie Hits Arsenal's First at Birmingham©PA Photos
The performance against Chelsea was undoubtedly the best of the season. Even though their West London rivals were well below form and came into the match on the back of a dismal run of results, Arsenal summoned a patient, disciplined and spirited display and thoroughly deserved all three points. Ivanovic’s reply to strikes from Song, Fabregas and Walcott might have got a few nerves jangling in the crowd but, in truth, Arsenal never looked seriously troubled in the latter part of the match and cantered to victory.
On the back of this result, the draw at Wigan was a massive disappointment. Having got themselves into a 2-1 lead at the break it would only have taken a third goal to have killed the match off. Despite this, the Gunners lost impetus in the second half and failed to really turn the screw on their hosts. Even when Wigan were reduced to ten men following N’Zogbia’s sending off, a one-goal lead never seemed enough and when the home team equalised from a set-piece it felt like an accident that had been waiting to happen.
Many supporters complained that the eight changes that Arsene Wenger made for this match following the Chelsea win was too many but I don’t think this is a valid excuse for what happened at the DW Stadium. None of the players that came in were untried rookies. All of them have plenty of experience, most were internationals and there were no names on the team-sheet that would look out of place in the starting line-up of any current Arsenal team. In fact, most of the players selected for that match were exactly the men who ought to have had a point to prove to the manager. As frustrating as it was to concede yet another goal from a set-piece to draw the match, what was more annoying was the lack of edge and failure to find a third goal to shut the game down with.
Happily though, the experience at Wigan didn’t seem to play on the minds of the players who appeared at Birmingham and the same line-up that had seen off Chelsea delivered the goods again at St Andrews. The free-kick that led to Arsenal’s first goal might have been questionable but it was good to see the Gunners get a goal from a set-piece of their own. The longer the match went on, the more dominant the Gunners became and, with Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri playing starring roles, they could have run away with it by a far wider margin.
So, what did we learn from these three games? Well, for one thing, Arsene Wenger knows what his strongest eleven is at the moment. The team he selected to face Chelsea and Birmingham has to be the one that faces City on Wednesday. It was clear from the Wigan match that players like Denilson, Rosicky, Diaby, Bendtner and Arshavin are not in the sort of form where they can be commanding a place in the starting line-up right now.
In defence, Johan Djourou is currently looking very good. He might go about his business quietly and with the minimum of fuss but he is showing a good deal of strength and solidity at the moment. His performance against Chelsea was particularly assured. Before the match, there was much talk about the hoodoo Didier Drogba has over Arsenal. Thanks to Djourou though, the Ivorian barely got a kick. Whilst we await the return of Thomas Vermaelen, the Swiss international looks like an automatic choice at the centre of defence.
Most heartening though, has been the return to form of Cesc Fabregas. He was suspended for the Wigan match, but against Chelsea and up at Birmingham he showed clear signs that he is really starting to tick again. Due to injury and, possibly, World Cup fatigue, he has had a stuttering start to the season but his last two appearances have suggested he is getting back to his best. We all know how vital he is to the team but if he reaches his peak again between now and the end of the season, coupled with players like Nasri, Wilshere and Chamakh continuing their rich veins of form, then Arsenal are going to be a match for anybody - assuming they can cut out the defensive lapses and the concession of soft set-piece goals.
Manchester City visit Ashburton Grove on Wednesday night for what is going to be another hugely significant match. This will arguably be a more rigorous test of the Gunners’ title credentials than the Chelsea game as City are in far better form having won all three of their Christmas and New Year games. However, Arsenal should be fuelled with confidence by today’s win at Birmingham and the City game is definitely one to look forward to.
Happy New Year.