There were more than a few “Phews” at the final whistle yesterday.
After two defeats during which we had displayed the cutting edge of a doughnut, a victory was essential to help steady the Good Ship Arsenal.
And a victory we got, but not one that was easy on the ticker.
At one point the TV cameras focused on an old boy in his 90s who has been following Arsenal since the 1920s. I remember thinking that games like the one we were watching were likely to finish the poor old fellow off.
Mind you, given some of the dire, trophy-less periods he has lived through I doubt whether he gets as hot under the collar about our current travails as some of the younger supporters (which in his case means everyone apart from Dandan).
The big news before kick-off was that Arsenal’s saviour had returned: Jack Wilshere starting a first team game for the first time in 17 months. Bacary Sagna also returned after his own absence: hard on young Carl Jenkinson perhaps, but there’s no harm in the lad getting a break after deputising very well so far this season.
Up front, Arsene Wenger took the revolutionary option of starting with an orthodox striker – Olivier Giroud – supported by Cazorla, with Podolski on the left and Ramsey taking the right-sided midfield role he performed so well against the champions a few weeks ago.
Andre Santos continued at left back, prompting long queues at the crappers before kick-off.
The opposition, managed by the unlikeable Mark Hughes, were bottom of the table despite having spent freely, assembling a squad littered with decent players.
QPR are also a big, physical team, proving that “Hughes the Elbow” did not abandon his fondness for the darker footballing arts after hanging up his boots.
As far as I could tell from watching on the box, the stadium atmosphere at kick off was supportive, but apprehensive. We all remember how nasty things got when the wheels came off at the start of last season, and you could tell the fans were nervous of the disharmony that might be waiting to rear its head if we were to suffer a third consecutive defeat.
Rather than a blow-by-blow report, I want to offer an overview of the game.
I felt we started well and immediately looked to have more positive intent than against Norwich last weekend. Cazorla was busy, finding space between the Rangers’ midfield and defence, Podolski was threatening at every opportunity and Wilshere’s quick feet and direct running were a sight for sore eyes (and I don’t know about you, but after Norwich and Schalke my eyes were as sore as Nasri’s splintered arse).
Hopefully one effect of Wilshere’s presence this season will be to take some of the pressure off Cazorla.
Opposition teams have quickly got wise to the dangers posed to them by Santi and he is usually closely marked now. The way we are playing at the moment you feel that if Santi is stopped, so are Arsenal.
But with Wilshere showing the sort of touches, skill and vision he displayed yesterday it’s not going to be so easy for other teams to nullify us and the prospect is mouthwatering.
To QPR’s credit they did not set out to Queens Park the bus (or at least not as much as most other teams we play at The Emirates). They had two up front and were prepared to try and get forward in a systematic way rather than just booting it up to Zamora.
We could have gone ahead early on, when a flicked header from Ramsey looped just onto the crossbar rather than just beneath it. My recollection is that Sagna crossed the ball in that incident – if so it was just one of several good crosses Mr Reliable made on his return. Incidentally, Sagna showed no signs of rustiness, which is quite remarkable after such a long lay off.
We had a few long range shots on target, a couple of which were spilled by Cesar in the QPR goal. None of the spillages fell to an Arsenal boot which, depending on your perspective, is either because we were unlucky or we did not get enough men in the box.
As the first half wore on and we failed to create any gilt-edged opportunities, the level of apprehension seemed to grow. The stadium was pretty quiet (although I accept that the television coverage does not always give an accurate indication of sound levels) and the players looked tense.
At half time it was hard to feel completely confident that we would come away with all three points and the second half continued in the same vein.
The turning point was a piece of petulance by the visitors’ centre back Stephane Mbia. Fouled by Vermaelen out by the right touchline, the Cameroonian lashed out a boot and was rightly shown red.
There were about 15 minutes to go and we had been gradually building up the pressure even before the sending off. But with QPR down to 10 we were really able to turn the screw.
A succession of chances followed – the best of them falling to Santi Cazorla who blasted over from inside the penalty area when he should at least have hit the target.
Cesar made some fine saves in the Rangers goal – the best of them from a deflected clearance off a QPR defender.
We finally got our reward in the 83rd minute. Giroud – who had a really good game leading the line – was able to win a great header in the box despite being under pressure from two defenders. Cesar parried it, but the ball found Arteta in the six yard box. His header hit the crossbar, bounced back into the six yard box and finally squirted (via Ramsey) to Arteta again, who poked it home. There was an argument for offside which may be justified but would have been difficult to call in the melee that led to the goal.
As we all anxiously willed the clock to tick faster, the team very nearly shot itself in the foot. Twice QPR found great positions to equalise. First Granero pulled a shot wide, then Mackie bundled through three challenges only to find Vito Mannone standing strong to make the block.
Finally the whistle went and the collective sigh of relief must have been audible in West London.
How to view this performance is all about context. If we were coming off the back of a string of good results, we would see it as a professional job: a game in which we were not quite in our best fluid form, but did enough to take all three points.
But after the two recent defeats (and, more particularly, the paucity of chances created in those games), this will be viewed by many as another dodgy outing in which we were lucky to come away with a win.
It’s worth noting, however, that we had 70% possession to QPR’s 30%, and we had 21 attempts on goal (11 on target) compared with QPR’s four (three on target).
Those stats should provide some measure of reassurance and certainly give the lie to Mark Hughes’s ridiculous claim that Rangers controlled the game until the sending off. But a man clinging to his job by the skin of his elbows is liable to say anything.
For me there were many pluses: that we ground out the result; that Jack is Back and looking every bit the player we remember him to be; that Bac is Back and in fine form; and that we have made the first step on the road to recovery.
Mannone: not a lot to do but made a vital stop in the dying minutes. His kicking was mostly very good. 7
Sagna: excellent performance by Bac. I don’t recall him being exposed defensively once all game and he got forward and made several fine crosses. 8.5
Mertesacker: solid outing; some good interceptions and headers and the usual composure when distributing from the back. 7
Vermaelen: unspectacular but did his defensive job well – exactly the sort of performance he needs as he gets his form back together. 7
Santos: after his struggles in the last two games Andre did better, but was still exposed a couple of times. However, he is getting a run of games and will improve. 6
Arteta: I’m running out of superlatives for Miki. Outstanding defensive duties and control of the ball. 8.5 (MoTM)
Wilshere: very encouraging return for Jack. His control, passing and running with the ball were all in evidence. If he stays fit he will make a big difference to our season. 8
Ramsey: when he plays wide right he is certainly no winger, but he kept the dangerous Taarabt quiet and did a lot of good work and got the assist for Arteta’s goal. I wish he had a better left foot because he sometimes gets himself into trouble by having to make wide turns on his right. 7
Podolski: he seemed to be hanging back more than usual to help protect Santos, but also looked lively when getting forward. Not his best game but you always feel he’s capable of popping up with a goal. 7
Cazorla: always busy and dangerous. He is surprisingly hard to barge off the ball for such a small guy. Should have done better with his shot when it was still 0-0. 8
Giroud: I really like this player: QPR are a big strong team but he more than held his own, moved their centre backs around a lot and brought others into the game. His fine header led to our goal. We need to be patient with Olivier because he will come good for us. 8
Walcott: looked as if he could threaten, without actually doing a great deal.
Gervinho: had a couple of typical runs (ie, tricksy runs with no end product) before picking up an injury and being substituted himself.
Arshavin: made the cross that led to the goal – a player who should, perhaps, be getting more pitch time.