Thursday 14 December 2017

Arteta steps up for Arsenal

Arsenal's Mikel Arteta challenges West Bromwich Albion's Markus Rosenberg during their Premier League encounter at the Emirates Stadium yesterday.
Arsenal's Mikel Arteta challenges West Bromwich Albion's Markus Rosenberg during their Premier League encounter at the Emirates Stadium yesterday.

In the aftermath of victory yesterday, Arsene Wenger wanted to portray his side's home win against West Brom in epic terms. "We knew we had to win this game and, somewhere in a top-level sportsman when you have to win, you win." Arsenal's problem is that they have lost too frequently when they had to win.

After last week's home defeat to Swansea, they may have felt this win was more important than others. Certainly if you don't want to be the kind of club that loses two home matches in a row, it was but Arsenal were once a team that felt they had to win at Old Trafford, not just at home to West Brom.

Yet Wenger, as he must, was determined to see the value in a performance which included wasteful finishing. Two penalties from Mikel Arteta were required, the first after the game's controversial moment when Santi Cazorla took a blatant dive when in close proximity to Steven Reid.

"I'm sorry if it was not a penalty. Santi says he was touched and lost his balance," Wenger said before promising to review the incident and remind Cazorla of his responsibilities if the manager believes he dived.

Wenger might feel the only responsibility his players have right now is to win.

Steve Clarke, not surprisingly, was enraged, justifiably angry about the dive and also the foul on Goran Popov in the build-up to Arsenal's second penalty.

"Zero contact, not even close," Clarke said of the first penalty award. "I'm not sure what the referee saw. It was a bad decision and it changed the shape of the afternoon."

West Brom's game plan lacked ambition, which is not to say it wouldn't have worked if the game had stayed scoreless. West Brom have now lost three games in a row so it may not be a surprise that Clarke, who was reluctant to criticise the referee, is talking about bad breaks.

West Brom never looked like threatening while Jack Wilshere was outstanding for Arsenal and the game would have been won without controversy if Wenger's side had converted their chances. Gervinho missed the most spectacular of these, fresh-airing a ball when in front of goal but, late on, substitute Lukas Podolski was almost as bad when he knocked the ball over the bar from six yards after being set up perfectly by Wilshere.

Wenger acknowledged this failing but also claimed their desire to win was the most important thing yesterday.

Perhaps when they look back on where Arsene Wenger went wrong they will note the stage when he began to talk about the future as if success was inevitable tomorrow. As a consequence, they became too forgiving of the present.

Arsenal developed a style of play but they abandoned the need to win. They were building for the future so it didn't matter but then they discovered that winning also needs to be part of the philosophy of any successful club.

It was strange that Wenger made this accommodation with defeat as he has always seemed pained by loss. Yesterday there was a sense they would fight for the result, even if they were helped by West Brom's lack of clarity.

Even after they conceded the opening goal, Boaz Myhill in the West Brom goal took his time taking goal-kicks so it was a perfect game for Arsenal, without a win in three Premier League games, to claim victory. The game was drab, enlivened only by the sometime comic interventions of Gervinho and the equally comic attempts by Gareth McAuley to stop him.

Yet it was Steven Reid, after a solid start, who relaxed Arsenal. When the ball dropped to Cazorla in the box, Reid made an unnecessary swipe at the ball or the man. He got neither but Cazorla dived spectacularly and the referee bought it.

Arteta calmly chipped the penalty as if there was no crisis and Arsenal had the lead.

Clarke had other complaints, among them a Per Mertesacker handball which he felt should have been a West Brom penalty. Instead a foul went against his side.

Gervinho was the focal point for most of the home crowd's anxiety. He had moments of great calmness to balance the wastefulness, most notably picking out Wilshere in the first half after a flowing Arsenal move but Wilshere's lunge for the ball wouldn't stay on target. The home crowd felt less jittery when a second penalty was awarded. There could be no doubt that Chris Brunt tripped Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the box, although Oxlade-Chamberlain also fouled Popov in the build up.

Arteta again stood up and claimed the points. "That's why I'm proud of our victory today," Wenger said. "It's important when you've your back to the wall that the team responds." He will learn more about his side's ability in a crisis over the coming months.

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