Saturday, November 5, 2011
Wenger finds ammunition in his Arsenal
Kevin Palmer, Emirates Stadium
The dark, bleak tunnel that snared Arsene Wenger as a high-profile captive seemed unwilling to yield a chink of light as the Arsenal boss endured a desperate start to this Premier League season - yet the mood is quickly changing around his new-look team.
With the despair of losing his two best players essentially before a ball was kicked being compounded by a run of results that tested the patience of even the most loyal Wenger devotee, the Arsenal manager seemed helpless to avert a slide that many predicted would end with his demise.
Indeed, as the last international break interrupted the flow of Premier League action, Arsenal found themselves closer to the relegation positions than the top four spots they have come to call their own in recent years, with the pain of a defeat against local rivals Spurs lingering as the final round of Euro 2012 group qualifiers were played out.
However, the mood is slowly improving, and a new Arsenal side may end up benefiting from the diluted expectations of the first six weeks of the season.
When once a Champions League finish looked beyond Arsenal, they are suddenly looking like a team on the rise, and this comfortable win served to cement the feel-good factor developing around them.
Goals from Robin van Persie - inevitably - and Thomas Vermaelen, rounded off by a classy third from Mikel Arteta, sent Arsenal into this latest international sabbatical on a run of four successive league wins, and this performance suggested some of their old swagger is bubbling to the surface once again.
It was during the height of his crisis that Wenger clung onto the theory that his much-changed team needed time to gel as a unit, and it seems as if his faith is now being rewarded after West Brom were swept away with impressive ease.
Van Persie's opener after 22 minutes was created by a sublime pass from Aaron Ramsey and once Vermaelen slammed home a second six minutes before the break, a West Brom side that triumphed at Emirates Stadium last season knew that they would be leaving as losers this time.
Arteta's sweet 74th-minute finish after a neat assist from Van Persie added some delicious icing to the Arsenal cake and, while it would be hasty to suggest Wenger's rebuilding programme is complete after a win against a side who allowed his side to strut their stuff at will, the positives that were hard to find a month ago have now come into clear view.
Contrary to reports, this Arsenal revival is not merely built around the scoring form of the brilliant Van Persie, as the sight of Vermaelen standing alongside the improving Laurent Koscielny in the heart of the Arsenal defence gave Wenger's rearguard a solid security.
Then there was the impressive display of Arteta in the heart of the midfield, his silky movement and passing too much for West Brom to handle. Wenger broke with tradition when he signed the experienced Spaniard on the final day of the August transfer window and, while replacing the departed Cesc Fabregas was always an improbable remit for Arteta to fulfil, Arsenal's No. 8 is emerging as the new heartbeat of their midfield.
Crisp with his passing and intelligent in his movement, Arteta is giving Arsenal the sort of panache they badly needed to rediscover and Wenger was in bullish mood as he faced the media.
"I said a month ago that we had to wait for this team to improve and we are seeing that progress now," Wenger said. "We were in a very bad place when we lost at Tottenham before the last round of internationals and, at that point, everyone was saying we had no chance this season.
"Well, now that things are going a little better, I prefer to keep some perspective as it is clear that we have plenty still to improve. The positive signs I always saw in this team are coming through now, but this is a team still coming together."
West Brom manager Roy Hodgson has much to ponder, but he hit back at the suggestion of one brave reporter who claimed his side lacked desire against the Gunners. "You can accuse us of lacking quality, of hitting the ball long too often and many other things, but it is scandalous to suggest my team did not put in a shift in this game," Hodgson said. "We were beaten by an excellent Arsenal side who were too good for us on the day. That's the truth of the matter."
It is not just on the field that Wenger's woes appeared to be evaporating, as the nervous and tetchy atmosphere that echoed around the Emirates earlier this season was replaced by a more positive vibe for this resounding victory. The confidence growing in the stands is trickling down to a team that now looks to have found its script at last.
Arsenal's early-season despair has been replaced with cautious optimism and, so long as Van Persie and the rest of Wenger's pack return from the international break unscathed, they have a clutch of winnable games on this horizon that should add to the momentum they are building up.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Mikel Arteta. This classy Spaniard is starting to look like the real deal in the heart of the Arsenal midfield, with his passing and finishing making him the outstanding performer in this game.
SANTOS' TWITTER TYPO: Arsenal full-back Andre Santos committed something of a Twitter crime when he posted a congratulatory comment to his team-mates after this latest win. "Great win gays," was his comment. We are sure he meant guys.
RVP JOINS THE ELITE: "There are only four or five players who tend to be in the world class category and Robin is clearly in that list right now," Arsenal boss Wenger beamed of his in-form hit-man Van Persie.
ARSENAL VERDICT: The Gunners will need to beat better sides than West Brom to confirm they are firmly back on track, but a routine victory like this was impossible to contemplate when they were staggering just a few weeks ago. They are showing positive signs of life once again.
WEST BROM VERDICT: Lacking quality and weakened by the absence of first-choice strikers Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie, they were no match for an improving Arsenal.