On Monday we outclassed Chelsea at the Grove. Yesterday the same starting line-up won a comfortable away victory against a Birmingham side notoriously hard to beat at home.
Finally we have a first eleven.
The second string is the one that played at Wigan and was unlucky to only draw. The first team would have won that game comfortably but the boss felt seven of them needed a rest (and Cesc was suspended).
The only other squad member who could expect to walk in to our newly established first team is Vermaelen – and even he can’t assume his place is guaranteed.
Establishing a definitive first team feels to me like a significant step forward for Arsenal – one that will increase our chances of winning silverware this year. And I suspect it has come as something of a surprise to Arsene Wenger, because I’m not sure he knew his best team before this week.
In the last three seasons we have not had a clear first team because of injuries to key players and Arsene’s insistence that he has does not have a first eleven but, instead, has a large squad of players any of whom can play in any game.
Rotation is necessary during a long season, but I can’t help feeling that Arsene now realises what his first choice starting line-up is. Of course it won’t start every game, but if all are fit and available this eleven will start the big ones.
We (and he) knew the optimum eleven names on the team sheet in the Invincibles season; likewise in ‘97/’98 and 2001/02. Now we know it for 2010/11 and it has involved some brave decisions on the boss’s part: dropping Arshavin to the bench; starting Theo; starting young Djourou and Koscielny ahead of the most senior defender in the squad (Squillaci); sticking with Fabianski; making Jack Wilshere a first team regular at 18 (now 19 – happy birthday Jack); and dropping Chamakh for RvP despite the former’s good start.
Barring knocks, I expect our Chelsea and Birmingham starting line-up to take the field against Manchester City on Wednesday.
Yesterday we were too skilful and strong for a physical Brummie team. Our first eleven carried on where they left off against Chelsea, working their socks off to close down the opposition and creating chances at will.
The first goal was all about Robin van Persie. In the 13th minute he was pulled back for a foul outside the Birmingham area. It was only a small tug and Robin went down easily, but I have no sympathy: if you pull someone’s shirt it’s a foul.
What happened next was very interesting. Normally our free kicks are notable for their lack of imagination or ingenuity. This time we had a plan – and it worked! Cesc stood in the middle of the Birmingham wall, then peeled off as Robin placed the shot perfectly in the gap he’d left behind. Bowyer stuck out an elbow (for what would surely have been a penalty if the ball had not ended up in the net) but the deflection took it past Foster. One-nil.
For the rest of the first half it was a competitive game, but with Arsenal on top despite some scares. Van Persie twice found himself in great positions in the opposition six yard box only to fluff his lines; Wilshere was nearly put through but miscontrolled in the area; Djourou almost got on the end of a van Persie free kick and Walcott also made a mess of a chance in the area.
At half time I was beginning to wonder of we would rue those misses, but I need not have worried.
Nasri made it two-nil in the 58th minute after a lovely one-two with Fabregas and the wind seemed to go out of Birmingham’s sails. The third came twelve minutes later – an own goal off Johnson after a breathtaking move of give-and-go involving Fabregas and Nasri.
We could have had more goals after that, but I’m not going to complain about a 3-0 away win at Birmingham.
The team played well as a unit and for each other. It was noticeable that Song played more defensively than he has been doing of late – presumably under orders to help protect our back line following Arsene’s criticism of our defending after the Wigan game.
Robin van Persie had one of those games where not much came off for him, but he scored the opener and worked very hard. His form will come back, which is an exciting prospect.
The only other noteworthy point is a mention for some of Birmingham’s thuggery. Roger Johnson should have seen red for a studs-up lunge into Cesc’s ankle early on and Bowyer would have been sent off if any official had seen his deliberate stamp on Sagna. He later raked his studs down Sagna’s calf. He’s a lowlife and should be retrospectively punished but probably won’t be. Cameron Jerome also managed a sneaky stamp on Koscielny’s thigh. It was good to see that we didn’t retaliate except by passing them into oblivion
After the Chelsea win I wrote a post saying that this team was ready to claim its destiny. When we drew away at Wigan I had those words thrown back at me, but I stood by them then and I do now. The key point being that it is THIS team – this eleven players who beat Chelsea and Birmingham – that is ready to prove Arsene’s critics wrong.
Like Kellogs Bran Flakes, this season is getting very, very tasty.
Fabianski: he’s beginning to win over the critics. Made one stunning save from a Larsson free kick. He also came well for aerial balls a couple of times (although got lucky once when he fumbled the ball but collected on the bounce). 8
Sagna: put one or two crosses astray but was as defensively solid as we have come to expect. 7.5
Djourou: big JD is fast establishing himself as our best CB. He put in an outstanding shift, dominating defensively and bringing the ball out well from the back. 8.5
Koscielny: as usual, some vital headers and tackles. His temperament and bravery are commendable and his partnership with Djourou looks strong. 8
Clichy: Gael had a very good game against Larsson, a former Gunner who can be quite a handful. Made one outstanding run and cross. 8
Song: an unusually quiet game for our woolly-headed wonder, but that was because he stuck to his defence-covering duties and because of Birmingham’s lack of attacking ambition. Didn’t do anything wrong. 7
Fabregas: pulled all the strings; didn’t react to some rough treatment from Bowyer; back to his best: 9 MoTM
Wilshere: more industry than inspiration from Jack yesterday, but he is forming a good MF partnership with Song and Cesc. 7
Nasri: superb movement, dribbling and passing – he is beginning to terrify defences and took his goal very well. Close call for MoTM. 8.5
Walcott: his normally accurate shooting was a bit astray last night, but he works hard, tracks back with great diligence and makes opposing defences nervous. Birmingham sat back a lot even when losing, so there was not the usual sort of space for him to exploit. 7
Van Persie: scored the opener but gave the ball away a lot and fluffed a couple of gilt-edged chances. Still working his way back to form. 6.5