Goals: Rosicky (21), Rosicky (50), Morrison (71, pen)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Fabianski (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Ramsey (CM) Arteta (CM), Rosicky (CM), Gervinho (RF), Cazorla (LF), Giroud (CF).
Despite coming under immense pressure, a 10-man Arsenal held on to their lead in the last 20 minutes after Mertesacker was sent off following a professional foul on Shane Long and Morrison converted the resulting penalty.
Steve Clarke Keeps Lukaku On the Bench in the first 62 minutes
In my tactical preview, I had predicted that with James Morrison recovering from his injury and Mulumbu suspended, WBA manager Steve Clarke would switch the left-sided midfielder Brunt to the center to pair him with Yakob, use Jerome Thomas on the left and Morrison as the most advanced central midfielder to link up play. While these predictions turned out to be all accurate, a big surprise was that Clarke kept his top goalscorer Lukaku on the bench and started with the Irish striker Shane Long. This was perhaps due to the Scot anticipating Arsenal’s high-line, and wanting to utililize Long’s tendency to play at the shoulder of the last defender to foil the offside trap.
Long was quite ineffective during the 60 minutes when he led the line by himself as can be seen in the above chalkboard. He was often caught offside, had only one attempt on goal which was off-target. In fairness, he did not receive much support from Morrison or the wide midfielders as Arsenal pressed effectively in those 60 minutes, not allowing the deep-lying midfielder Yakob too much time on the ball. The Argentine did not lose the ball when he received it, but Arsenal’s pressing made him receive the ball much less than he usually does (see the chart below that compares his passing action with the one against Swansea in the first 65 minutes). Most importantly, Yakob was not able to spray the ball quickly to wide areas to start combination plays on the flanks and was forced to pass backward 6 times again in those first 65 minutes.
At the other end of the pitch, WBA also did press Arsenal’s build-up effectively and did not allow the visitors to settle into a fluent passing game. As expected, it was a tight and cagey first half with very few chances on either end. Early in the game, WBA turned up the pressure through a series of set pieces. Rosicky cleared Yakob’s inbound header on the goal line from a corner, and Fabianski did not look entirely convincing with high balls from set pieces. The Pole, however, made a good save from a Brunt free-kick when the ball almost sneaked inside his near post.
Easily neutralizing the WBA threat for the most part of the opening hour, Arsenal were clinical themselves, creating 3 clear cut chances and scoring 2 goals. First, in the 20th minute, Arteta found Gervinho on the left channel with a diagonal ball. The Ivorian twisted and turned, and fired a cross/shot into the 6-yard box which was turned in by Rosicky’s instinctive header. Just before the half time whistle, a glorious Arsenal move saw Giroud cushioning the ball to Cazorla in front of the box, and receiving the Spaniard’s majestic reverse ball. The French striker then laid the ball with a flick to the incoming Ramsey behind him. The Welshman had only Foster to beat but incredibly shot wide. Early in the second half, though, Ramsey made amends after Cazorla released him on the break from the right. Rosicky cushioned down Ramsey’s low and early ball, and fired on the half volley. Foster could only parry the fierce shot back to the Czech who blasted home the rebound. With 40 minutes to go, Arsenal looked more comfortable than a kitten on a wool blanket. But Clarke intervened with a bold move.
Clarke Sends in Lukaku and Rosenberg and Attacks with 3 strikers
Shortly after the hour mark, Steve Clarke made his move by replacing the two ineffective wide men, Thomas and Dorrans, sending in Lukaku and Rosenberg and switching to a 3 pronged attack. Early signs of Arsenal shooting themselves in the foot appeared when Mertesacker played a wayward pass to Koscielny in Arsenal half, with the French centerback clearly not expecting the ball. Koscielny had to tackle Long who had intercepted the ball and earned a yellow card. Then, 20 minutes from time, the complexion of the game changed completely.
When WBA switched to a 3-striker system, Shane Long stayed in the center, Lukaku started making runs through the inside left channel and Rosenberg did the same from the inside right channel. Despite Arsenal fullbacks now being occupied with those runs, and being pinned back, the Arsenal central midfielders did not adjust their shape and continued to press higher up the pitch. With full backs pinned back and midfield pushing up, a space emerged between them for Morrison to sneak into. I have emphasized in the tactical preview that Morrison provides WBA a crucial link between the midfield and forward areas with his ability to pick the diagonal ball. When the Scot received the ball behind Arteta, Cazorla and Rosicky who were pressing high, and Ramsey who was not alert enough to Morrison’s movement, he delivered a glorious diagonal ball over the top to release Long behind. Mertesacker’s late tackle was a professional foul that denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Howard Webb sent the German off and Morrison converted the penalty.
Wenger responded by sacrificing Rosicky (who had a yellow card) and sending in Vermaalen. Gervinho was also taken off for Gibbs to come in to barricade the left flank in front of Monreal. The last 25 minutes including the 5-minute extra time was a nerve-wrecking siege for Arsenal fans. The Gunners were not able to retain any sort of possession in WBA half and dug deep in front of their box to repel relentless WBA pressure. The home side mainly attacked from their left through Lukaku and Ridgewell. The best way to describe the siege is the chakboard below which indicates Arsenal’s passing action after the red card. In normal times, Arsenal completes 17 passes in one move. During the 25 minutes after the red card, Arsenal completed a total of 17 passes, and only two of those were in the attacking third. Lukaku, Long and McAuley missed 3 big chances, and Arsenal held on for another golden 3 points in the race for a Champions League spot. It was not pretty, but no Arsenal fan would care!