By Richard Clarke
Until today, Arsenal had been running like a well-oiled machine at home in the Premier League. They had registered three straight wins, scoring 14 goals; it was the backbone of their early season optimism.
This afternoon, they rattled up win No 4, however the only lubricant was elbow grease.
The Arsenal engine was purring perfectly early on. After 16 minutes, Robin van Persie celebrated the birth of his daughter this week with his fifth goal of the season. Then Abou Diaby grabbed another almost immediately.
However Lee Bowyer plundered a goal seven minutes before the break despite Arsenal claiming a foul on Vito Mannone in the build-up.
After that, the home side remained in the ascendency but they had to thank the Italian for a crucial save late on and could only breathe easily after Andrey Arshavin curled home a low shot from the edge of the area with five minutes remaining.
Still, it seems Arsenal are doing something seriously right at home at the moment. It takes all sorts of games to make a season and all sorts of victories to win a title.
This was more graft than craft but they still banked three points and that will do for today.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Wenger’s line-up was the change he did not make. Manuel Almunia had fully recovered from his chest infection but Mannone, the 21-year-old rookie who had been outstanding in recent weeks, kept his place in goal.
Kieran Gibbs replaced Gael Clichy (ankle), Emmanuel Eboue replaced Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott, making his first start of the season, replaced Arshavin. Otherwise Arsenal were fielding the same side that had hammered Blackburn 6-2 on this ground a fortnight earlier.
Birmingham came here with the optimism of a new owner but, at the same time, were burdened with injuries. They had not won at Arsenal in over 50 years and it seemed early on that their poor run would continue.
This season at Emirates, Wenger’s side had been registering nothing but free-scoring wins and the first 38 minutes only suggested more of the same.
In the opening stages, Cesc Fabregas clipped a long pass forward towards Van Persie. Roger Johnson intervened but only succeeded in nodding the ball invitingly into the path of the onrushing Rosicky, who made a hash of his attempted volley.
Shortly afterwards, Liam Ridgewell clattered Walcott in midfield causing the England midfielder to require treatment. He came back on and, with his first touch, tricked the same defender, sprinted up the right wing and forced Joe Hart to tip over the bar with rasping, angled drive.
In between those efforts, Rosicky miscued from close range after Van Persie had headed the ball back into his path. A doppelganger of his opening chance.
Arsenal were starting to pin back Birmingham so the opening goal came as no surprise. In the 16th minute, Song prodded a ball into the left-hand channel, Van Persie dug it out from beneath his own feet before firing home his fourth goal in his last four games.
A couple of minutes later it was 2-0. An irresistible move ended with Rosicky cutting the ball back across the area from the right-hand side. It was too far behind Van Persie and too far in front of Walcott however Diaby collected then stroked home the second.
Birmingham were offering nothing in attack. The only chance of note had come on the half-hour when Mannone batted away a regulation free-kick from Seb Larsson.
However, that would change seven minutes before the break.
They worked a corner to Barry Ferguson, whose cross was nodded high into his own area by Abou Diaby. Larsson’s presence forced Mannone to spill his attempted catch and, with Arsenal awaiting the referee’s whistle, Bowyer hooked home from close range at the far post.
Just before the goal, Walcott had made way for Arshavin. The Englishman was clearly feeling the effects of that early challenge.
The substitute forced a fine low save from Hart at the near post as Arsenal tried to recoup their two-goal advantage. Seven minutes after the restart Arshavin swivelled a shot wide from six yards when he should have scored.
The opportunity helped Arsenal regain their composure because the opening stages of the second half had belonged to Birmingham. Though the most they made of it was mild consternation in the home penalty area.
And before long, Arsenal would do much more than that at the other end. On the hour, referee Lee Probert penalised Hart for picking up a backpass after Larsson had intercepted a Cesc Fabregas cross. After much deliberation, Van Persie grazed the bar with the free-kick.
After that, both sides went into their shells a little. Both had a position in the game they wanted to exploit, not let slip. Arsenal were still the superior but Birmingham were showing their stomach for the fight.
The home side came closest to putting the game to bed. Hart saved from Thomas Vermaelen’s header at the far post and Van Persie whipped a free-kick just wide.
However, Birmingham were having their moments. The most nerve-jangling, from a Arsenal perspective at least, came soon afterwards when Mannone made a terrific save from Ridgewell’s cross.
Five minutes from time, the game was finally safe. Fabregas led the breakaway and Arshavin teased his marker before steering home a low drive just inside the far post.
Hart made an excellent save from Diaby at the death but Arsenal already had everything they wanted.
This was a fortifying win in many, many ways.
- Eboue 90
- Walcott 33
- Fabregas (C)
- Song Yellow Card
- Rosicky 72
- Diaby Goal!
- van Persie Goal!
- Sagna 72
- Arshavin 33 Goal!
- Wilshere 90
- Hart Yellow Card
- Bowyer Goal!
- Carsley (C) 79
- McFadden 70
- Jerome 60
- McSheffrey 70
- Phillips 79
- O'Connor 60