Birmingham 0-3 Arsenal: A perfect start to the new year

I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that the first game of 2011 is a sign of things to come for this year. A good win, three goals, a clean sheet and the best response against a team who went over the edge a little bit physically.

Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri celebrate

Apart from one Fabianski save from a first half Seb Larsson free kick I don’t remember the Arsenal goalkeeper having to do much at all beyond come for a few crosses and corners which he did solidly. It was Arsenal who made all the chances and if this hadn’t been only the second time Robin van Persie completed 90 minutes for us this season the game would probably have been out of sight at half-time.

He squandered a couple of glorious chances in the first half but you have to think a fitter, sharper van Persie would have tucked them away. At 3-0 up later on it would have been easy for the manager to throw on Nicklas Bendnter but I think it was quite deliberate that he left Robin on to give him the time he needs to find that sharpness and play himself into a bit of form.

He did put us ahead though with a free kick in the 13th minute. I don’t quite know why Birmingham allowed Cesc into their wall but when he span out of the way van Persie hit it into the space vacated by the captain, it took a deflection off Lee Bowyer’s hands and went in. 1-0 to the Arsenal.

Birmingham did have a couple of moments. On ESPN (more on them later) Chris Waddle was shouting for a ‘pelanty’ when the ball hit van Persie on the arm. To me it wasn’t a penalty. He missed his header and the ball hit his arm. There was no deliberate movement of arm towards ball. Then Roger Johnson fired over from about 6 yards yet despite replay after replay showing he was offside when the ball was flicked on there was no mention of it from the commentary team.

We began the second half very brightly, making two excellent chances. First, Nasri cushioned Walcott’s cross into the path of birthday boy Jack Wilshere but he sidefooted over the bar when he really should have scored. Then Foster made a very good save from Nasri when he burst through the middle of the Birmingham defence. I was beginning to worry, I have to say. Arsenal making chances and failing to take them usually ends up with the opposition scoring but there was no repeat of that.

Nasri and Cesc combined in a way which reminded me of Henry and Pires, the Frenchman took the ball on, Johnson backed off and seeing the space Nasri just passed the ball into the bottom corner of the net. It looked a really simple finish but it’s the kind of goal you only usually see from a player full of confidence – and with 13 goals this season that’s Nasri. Our third, had it been finished by an Arsenal player, would have been a truly world class goal. The build up play between Cesc and Nasri was just sublime, in the end Cesc’s shot was saved but it ricocheted around and went in off Johnson (some karma for a crude challenge earlier on Cesc).

At 3-0 that was that. Birmingham looked tired and listless, perhaps a consequence of the exact same starting XI playing against United a few days ago. I don’t want to go into the rights and wrongs of the Wigan decision again but it was clear we were fresher and sharper than they were. We had further chances. Cesc shot over, Arshavin forced a save from Foster but crucially we also kept a clean sheet. Our first since the 2-0 win away to Wolves.

Higlights/interviews/goals on the video page.

Afterwards Arsene said:

We needed to be resilient without losing our nerves. I give great credit to my players for doing that because they kept calm, intelligent and never let nerves come out in their game. I am very proud of my team today.

The worries about getting that important second goal aside you can look back on a game which Arsenal pretty much dominated. Defensively we were very good. The Djourscielny axis looks to have better balance than Squiscielny, and with Djourmaelen and Verscielny still to be tried there’s some promise there. Djourou has really matured despite having spent a long time out with injury. Perhaps it’s focussed him, given him time to take stock, but he looks a much better, much more aggressive centre-half than he did previously.

Also, while I wouldn’t say he’s under-appreciated, Bacary Sagna’s consistency is something to be lauded. It’s easy to point at Nasri as our player of the season because his contribution is more noticeable and easily measured in terms of stats, but Sagna has been fantastic this season. He’s defensively solid, he gets up and down that right hand side time and time again, has contributed from an attacking point of view and when you consider the physical demands of what he does he deserves some recognition for it.

In midfield I thought Song had a fine game again allowing the really positive stuff between Cesc (looking much more like his old self) and Nasri to flourish. So, an important win and I think as well it was crucial that we kept a clean sheet. We need to get a few of those under our belts now and we’ll go into the City game on Wednesday feeling much better about ourselves than we did post-Wigan.

A couple of other things. Lee Bowyer. If he’s not done for his stamp on Sagna there’s no justice. It was nasty and unneccessary but then this is Lee Bowyer. Huge props to the Arsenal fans for the ‘We’ve got Cesc Fabregas, you’ve got Lee Bowyer’ chant. I think Sagna got under his skin a bit because he had another kick at him near the sideline. As for the other stuff, yes, Birmingham were physical but I genuinely believe that the best way to deal with that is do what we did yesterday and just win the game.

I know we’re a little bit sensitive to over-physical play because of what happened to Ramsey, Eduardo and Diaby, and I don’t suggest for a second we forget that, but I do think that perhaps we (as fans) react a little too strongly when we should just let the team punish them with football. If something is horribly dangerous then fine but when you a face a team filled with average, paceless players whose main attribute is their size and their strength you have to expect them to use that. Ridgewell’s studs in Walcott’s back an example. Snide but not really worth making a fuss over.

That said, you might expect some balance from commentary but not on ESPN. That particular incident is the perfect example of what’s wrong with commentary/punditry. As Walcott was down they speculated there might have been a knee in the back when they went to contest the ball. The replays showed Ridgewell rake his studs down Walcott’s back/arse, yet Chris Waddle could only say ‘Yeah, look, a knee in the back’.

The unwillingness of these people to say what they see and hold tight to their initial opinion, even if it’s wrong, is just pathetic. There’s nothing wrong in changing your mind having seen an incident again from a different angle. And that aside how on earth does Chris Waddle have a job in broadcasting when he can barely speak English? The hilarious mispronunciation of ‘pelanty’ aside he sounds like a halfwit who learned to speak English as a second language. After the van Persie handball incident he said:

“How has the ref not saw this?! Clear pelanty”

I’m sorry, but there are talented, informative, insightful people out there who would love a job in the media doing what Waddle does. There are people who can actually speak English properly and ESPN’s insistence on using a man who can’t even pronounce basic words correctly or speak in the correct tense is just shameful. Anyway, a good day overall for us and it does set us up nicely for Man City on Weds. More on that in the days to come.

In other news Bolton want Carlos Vela on loan. I have to say that would be perfect for him. It’s very much sink or swim time from an Arsenal point of view and while some regular football might be just what he needs, perhaps he needs to realise just how lucky he is to be at a club like Arsenal because he’s in real danger of letting his Arsenal career pass him by.

And apparently Fulham have had a £5m bid for Nicklas Bendtner turned down. Quite right too. Even if not signing Schwarzer was a blessing in disguise we shouldn’t forget how difficult they made things for us in that regard. And beyond that I see Bendtner as a good squad player who can make a positive contribution to our season. I wouldn’t let him go even if they upped their bid.

Right then, that’s plenty for a Sunday. The new year begins in earnest tomorrow. Up and at them nice and early. Start as you mean to go on and all that. Till then.


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