Goals: Arteta (26, pen), Arteta (64, pen)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Gibbs (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Cazorla (CM), Gervinho (LF), Oxlade-Chamberlain (RF), Giroud (CF).
Arsenal ended their 4-match winless run with a much improved performance compared to dismal displays of the last few weeks. They were led by the excellent Wilshere who was both combative and creative, sometimes at the same instance. Unfortunately, Cazorla’s dive to get the first of the two Arteta penalties, but not this improved performance, was the main talking point after the game.
Arsenal started the game with much more hunger, freshness and intensity compared to the Swansea game. The main difference was their relentless pressure on the ball, quicker ball circulation and true width on both flanks. The home side did not give West Brom any time and space on the ball. West Brom’s midfield missed the injured Claudio Yacob’s energy and dynamism as Brunt, Mulumbu and Morrison were utterly dominated by Arteta, Cazorla and Wilshere all game long (at times the Arsenal trio were as comfortable as they were in a training exercise). Unlike recent games, no West Brom midfielder specifically dropped on Arteta to disrupt Arsenal’s ball circulation at its source. With Arsenal applying good pressure from the front, Arteta was never exposed defensively, which enabled Wilshere to push forward and orchestrate attacks freely. Wilshere had 48 passes completed in the game, 31 of those in the attacking third and 31 passes being forward passes. If anything, this game showed why Arsenal need to press from the front to build any pressure and play the game they like to play.
Despite the encouraging start, however, Arsenal’s main clear-cut chance in the opening 20 minutes was Gervinho’s fluffed shot when Giroud’s physical presence made it difficult for Myhill to punch away a Cazorla corner. There was also a half chance when Oxlade-Chamberlain (who had his best game of the season) raced to Sagna’s ball on the right flank, yet Cazorla sliced the winger’s excellent cross wide on the volley. Shortly after the 20th minute mark, West Brom surfaced in Arsenal’s half for the first time as Brunt’s right-footed curler missed the far post.
Perhaps, as Steve Clarke moaned about it after the game, the visitors’ game plan was to frustrate Arsenal as long as possible, banking on the nervousness that would ensue if the game went on scoreless. This ingenious plan was turned upside down in the 23rd minute when Wilshere cushioned down Olsen’s clearance in the midfield and passed the ball to Giroud in front of the West Brom box. The French striker quickly fed Cazorla’s overlapping run on the left inside the box. As Reid rushed to tackle Cazorla, the playmaker moved the ball from his left to right foot cutting inside Reid’s challenge. Replays showed clearly that there was minimal or no contact, yet the referee bought Cazorla’s dive and awarded a penalty. When Arteta scored from the penalty spot, it was Arsenal’s first penalty goal at home since April 2011. Minutes later, West Brom demanded a penalty of their own when Mertesacker handled the ball in the box after a set piece delivery, but replays showed why the referee gave a foul for Arsenal as Olsen was clearly strangling the German defender from behind when the ball was still in the air.
The remaining of the half saw Arsenal completely controlling the game and creating further chances to extend their lead. The home side’s favored move was Gervinho running inside off-the-ball and Cazorla overlapping Gibbs into the space that Gervinho emptied. In one such move, it was unfortunately Gervinho but not Giroud who got at the end of Cazorla’s cross as the Ivorian again showed that an 8 year old girl is more threatening in the air than the erratic winger. Yet Gervinho did a few good things as well. In the 36th minute, Gibbs and Cazorla again combined on the left and the Spaniard released Gervinho whose cut back was missed at the goal mouth by the onrushing Wilshere.
The second half was played in a similar fashion with Arsenal never allowing West Brom any action in Arsenal’s half and continuing to create chances, mainly through Wilshere. When Giroud controlled a long Vermaalen ball inside the left channel, he fed Wilshere’s overlapping run. The midfielder’s cross to the far post was caught by Oxlade-Chamberlain on the volley, but the ball bounced off the crossbar. Then, Gibbs overlapped Cazorla on the left: his cross was met by Gervinho’s head in the box with predictable consequences. Minutes later, Wilshere’s chipped ball to Giroud got a deflection off West Brom left back Popov and presented a glorious chance to Gervinho in the 6 yard box, but the Ivorian this time had an air-kick (no, I am not kidding).
When Arsenal finally extended their lead, it was again in controversial circumstances. Wilshere started a counterattack through Cazorla whose diagonal ball found Oxlade-Chamberlain on the far right. The winger first lost control of the ball, yet with a little nudge, he shook off Popov and burst into the box only to be upended by Brunt’s rash challenge. There was no question about the foul in the box, yet the visiting team were furious for the foul not given on Popov. Arteta did not care and executed the very same penalty again.
With the game all but won, Arsenal found further chances, the most glaring of which was wasted by the substitute Podolski in the 6 yard box after Wilshere played the striker in. West Brom continued to look subdued being able to register their first and only shot at Arsenal goal in the 85th minute through the substitute Rosenberg. It was an easy victory for Arsenal, despite being tarnished with the controversies surrounding the two penalties. Yet, the performance was infinitely better than the last week’s abomination against Swansea.