26 September 2013

Arsenal 4-3 West Brom (pen); undeserved, but, well...

It wasn't pretty, but we managed to pull off the win, and that's really all that counts. I do regret that West Brom came so close only to come away with nothing, for the league cup offers clubs the rare opportunity to do something famous. It's similar to the movie Hoosiers, in which any club, no matter how small, has a chance to knock any club, no matter how large. We saw a dose of this last spring when Wigan knocked off Man City to claim the FA Cup. For the first sixty minutes and again for most of the rest of regulation and into overtime, West Brom simply outplayed Arsenal and arguably deserved the win more than we. That we came out with a win anyway proves only that outcome and effort are sometimes miles apart, for we were certainly not the better squad on the evening.

That said, there are few moral victories in sport, and so I doubt that there are many Baggies trudging home thinking, "well, at least we hung tough". To those who are, it's cold consolation, if any at all. I've been on the other side of such losses, and I'd almost prefer to have been roundly thrashed. Once Gnabry missed his spot-kick, I thought, "well, that's it." I can't imagine (and don't want to, either) what it must have felt like to be on the other end, thinking, "we're going to pull this off" only to see not one but two misses slam shut the door. To have come so close only to see victory slip through their fingers must be agonizing, and I hope it doesn't provide West Brom with too much motivation against us going forward.

Back to Arsenal. Back to Gnabry. For as much as we might bemoan the saved kick, let's be honest. Penalties are a lottery. The shooter picks one of three basic options: left, center, right. The keeper chooses from the same. Even if the keeper matches the shooter, there's placement, pace, timing. On the whole, Gnabry's shot was among the better-taken of the ten. He just had the bad luck of being the only one whose shot was saved. Here, then, is a quick review:
  1. Reid: 8/10—well-taken, top-right corner and out of reach despite Fabiański guessing right.
  2. Bendtner: 6/10—decent but only midway between the center of goal and the right post. Good thing Daniels guessed wrong.
  3. Rosenberg: 4/10—very nearly down the middle, almost saved by Fabiański who dove to his left but almost deflected anyway.
  4. Gnabry: 5/10—similar to Bendtner's but towards the left post. Daniels guessed correctly and parried.
  5. Morrison: 9/10—nearly perfect, top-left corner shot. The only element missing would be to have it glance in off the post.
  6. Olsson: 6/10—good shot, beating Daniels who guessed right. Extra point given for responding well to the pressure of the moment.
  7. Dawson: 1/10—plain and simple, you must make the keeper save, at a minimum. Putting it that far wide is inexcusable, especially given how a goal would have all but sealed the victory.
  8. Akpom: 5/10—again, another decent shot but only midway between the center and the post, benefitting more from the keeper guessing wrong than from the quality of the shot.
  9. Amalfitano: 1/10—as with Dawson, one must put it on-frame. Knowing that the squads were now level, it was all the more crucial to do so.
  10. Monreal: 6/10—similarly, the shot was midway between center and post and went in because the keeper guessed wrong.
That was enough to seal it. It may not be fair or just, but we advance and will host Chelsea in the next round, set for October 29 or 30. West Brom will nurse its wounds while we savor the win. I'd like to offer up a platitude along the lines of "that's the way the ball bounces", but it might be more-true to point out that we escaped by the skin of our teeth. On to a few other individual performances...

The Squad
Ah, to be Arsène Wenger. On one hand, you're lambasted for rotating Academy players in. On the other, you're lampooned for the injuries to first-team players. The critics can't have it both ways. If Arsène plays Giroud, Ramsey, or Özil, he'll be criticized for over-playing them. When he plays Gnabry, Akpom, or Miyaichi, he's criticized for throwing in the towel. Sure, there's a middle ground, a magical fairy-tale land in which every single signing works out exactly as planned (or in which a club can simply buy any available player), but that is, after all, a fantasy. Last season, we threw on a full-strength squad against Bradford and were humiliated. On this night, we threw on a squad of second-choices, the recently-injured, and the youth of today, and it worked out (barely). Whenever you throw together a bunch of players who are unfamiliar (and far from fitness—Nicklas Bendtner, I'm looking at you...), there's bound to be some disjointedness and sloppiness. We got through despite that. On to a few players...

Nicklas Bendtner
Look, the man hadn't played competitive football for club or country since May 2013. Between the width of his waist and the breadth of his beard, his aerodynamics were understandably off. For him to have played 120 minutes of football is therefore astounding. Well, "astounding" might be overstating it, but still. He delivered an assist on our only goal of the game, a well-weighted pass, and had a few chances that he might have delivered on had he been more in-form. His spot-kick may have been his first Arsenal goal since 2011, but it came at just the right time and with the appropriate amount of celebration.

Lukas Fabiański
Mr. Flappyhandski actually turned in a decent performance despite conceding the equalizer to Berahino. By the time the keeper has to make a save, I've always maintained, ten other guys have let him down in one way or another. To criticize Fabiański for failing to save a point-blank header misses the point. Where were our center-backs, each of whom towers over Berahino, on Berahino's header? Why didn't anyone close down on Shane Long to prevent his little chip? By the time the ball was in the net, a sequence of other failures preceded Fabiański's. Otherwise, on the whole, he acquitted himself tolerably well.

Thomas Vermaelen
While it may be too early to memorize and declare lines from Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain!", it was gratifying to see Vermaelen take to the field and perform as well as he did. According to whoscored.com, he led the team in interceptions, shots blocked, effective clearances, and passing accuracy. In the absence of a true, in-form defensive midfielder (Arteta working back from injury and Hayden being, well, 18), Vermaelen linked defense to offense quite well and looks to be regaining the form and confidence that had abandoned him a year ago. Should this hold true, a center-back rotation of Vermaelen, Koscielny, and Mertesacker could be formidable indeed.

Long story short, we may not have deserved this win, but we got it. There's a tricky visit to Liberty Stadium to face Swansea on Saturday, and we've continued a run that has seen us win 17 of our last 20 competitive matches (including eleven in a row on the road). We may have underestimated Swansea a bit last year, but we won't do so again this year. On top of that, this is a squad that wants to win and knows how, whether it's a squeaky bum like tonight or a 3-0 over Fener. In either case, we're on a nifty little run. Enjoy it while it lasts!