Mayday, mayday – Arsenal catch fire

Arsenal 1-0 Manchester United

Well, that was fun.

Fresh out of the title race and with the handbrake well and truly off, Arsenal put in the kind of shift and performance that – had they happened more frequently this season – would have been the benchmark.

That our benchmark has in fact been drawing or losing from winning positions, or not taking our chance to edge ahead even when the opportunity is presented to us on a silver salver, makes yesterday all the more frustrating. You could spend months turning yourself inside-out mulling over the What Ifs if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t get you anywhere, so what’s the point?

Best I think to take it as a fine one-off performance, and it really was.

Maybe it was the glorious sunshine, refreshing breeze and the glow of Bremen’s finest export, but I was in a state of almost horizontal calm before the match. This is what happens when you don’t expect too much.

From the off though, you could tell that Arsenal were up for it, with both Walcott and Wilshere squandering presentable chances early on. Ramsey, Song and Wilshere were having a ball in midfield, with Djourou and Koscielny untroubled at the back. The latter made one particularly thunderous interception on Fabio. Tackling at its finest.

The referee was doing his best to get in the way of Arsenal passes wherever possible – one of them even looked like a nifty backheel – and was clearly too busy honing his positional interceptions to spot Nemanja Maradona’s handball. Rooney was bubbling with frustration; always a good sign.

The goal, when it came, was not dissimilar to Arshavin’s against Barcelona. Van Persie waited and waited, before passing to the unmarked Ramsey to slot it home.

Hats off to the Welshman. For my money it was his finest Arsenal performance to date, against tough opposition, and if there’s anyone who better deserved the catharsis of a goal then I’d like to know who it is.

His partnership with Wilshere, sitting in front of the equally excellent Song, really blossomed. That we did not miss Fabregas yesterday says it all, and bodes extremely well. For me, the Wilshere/Ramsey partnership was the stand-out highlight of an all-round impressive performance.

Ramsey also seems more vocal than I remember him being – when Sagna made a clearance in the first half, he was first to him to slap him on the back. It’s easy to see why Wales took a punt on making him their captain.

OK, so the last 30 mins was a bit hairier, but we held on well and can be grateful that the referee was at least as poor for Man Utd as he was for us. Clichy’s clumsy tackle on Owen would have been given as a penalty more times than it wouldn’t. But the old saying that things even themselves out was very apt here – one penalty apiece not given – and we were well worth our win.

Clichy – prone to this – did otherwise have an excellent game, particularly from an attacking perspective. Szczesny showed once again that while he needs to work on distribution – he wasted several goal kicks at the end by kicking them all the way to van der Sar – he is an imposing keeper and a fine shot-stopper. We do not need a new number one in the summer.

Anything left to achieve this season? Of course. As well as cementing an automatic Champions League place, which is well within our grasp if we play like that, I’d like to see us win all of our final three games of the season. Should we do that, it would be the first time this campaign that we will have won four league games in a row.

Apparently, it was the most youthful team fielded by any side this season in the Premier League – averaging 23 years and 296 days. No doubt the boss will see that as vindication of his approach. It’s hard to disagree based on yesterday’s performance, but that doesn’t mean some hard work needs to be done on the training pitch and with the cheque book over the summer to ensure that performances like that are the norm and not the exception.

Enjoy your bank holiday – I know I will.

Match report: Arsenal first-rate in second city

Birmingham City 0-3 Arsenal

Now that’s what I call fairweather blogging! I raved about the Chelski performance, but kept mum after earthward bump at Wigan. Now I’m back to doff the cap to the team for today’s performance at lowly Birmingham, which was as excellent as Wigan was disappointing as Chelski was excellent. Maybe that should be my blogging template for 2011: Post when we win, but bury my head in the sand when we don’t. The only negativity you’d get then would be me moaning about not having won well enough. I’m sure you could all handle that.

Hard job being a manager too: Wenger was criticised (and I still think fairly) for rotating too many players at Wigan immediately after our best win of the season, but today, seeing his side buzz, hustle, harry and gurgle at St Andrews, it would be easy to conclude that Wenger did in fact get it right. Three games in six days, seven points from nine.

As ever, the truth is somewhere in between and we won’t know until the final reckoning whether Wigan was rotational genius or two crucial points discarded.

Anyway, enough of that, it’s conjecture and nowt more. The response was excellent today, and while it is true that Birmingham were largely poor, it was heartening to see us play as diligently off the ball as we did on it. I’ll never forget, slack-jawed, how Barcelona last season at the Grove fought like cats and dogs to get the ball back on the odd occasion that they lost it. If you don’t give the ball away much when you have it, and try to get it back as fast as you can when you don’t, it strikes me that you might go places.

Today we saw another eight changes, undoing all of those made at Wigan and reinstating the entire starting XI we saw against Chelski. van Persie opened the scoring, via a deflection off Lovable Lee Bowyer, but overall Robin had the kind of game a man who needs games has. Rusty van Persie. He had one or two other pretty decent opportunities but the WD-40 hadn’t made it through to his titanium ball-bearing knees and they went begging.

Nasri slotted in a very decent second, slamming my nerve cupboard door closed, and from that point on it became a procession and Arsenal were able to extend their peacock feathers and have a bit of fun. The third – though it was an own goal – was a thing of beauty in the build up.

In between all this, there was the usual needle associated with this fixture, with a Roger Johnson studs-up challenge on Cesc in particular causing consternation and Lee Bowyer being, well, generally Bowyeresque. And Birmingham, to be fair, made much more of a game of it in the first half than they did in the second and were aggrieved not to get a penalty themselves.

Overall though we more than merited the three points and the clean sheet (yes! Hark!), and have set ourselves up nicely for Wednesday’s game against Man City. Unless Mancini puts all eleven men behind the ball, it has the potential to be a bit tasty.

Finally, a Happy New Year to you all. I might not say it as often as I should, but thanks to everyone for reading, for commenting, for advising, for tweeting, and generally for being top-draw gooners in 2010. I really do appreciate it. Have a happy, prosperous, healthy and trophy-laden 2011.

Cool Hand Łukasz

Wolves 0-2 Arsenal

A fine rearguard performance, bookended by two well-taken goals from Chamakh and notable for an exceptional goalkeeping performance from the enigmatic Lukasz Fabianski.

Watching Fabianski is not good for one’s general health, it seems. Recent performances have tended to be steps forward, albeit with a mini step backwards against Newcastle. Last night the lovable Pole laid the ghost of Carroll (not meant to be quite as eerie and sick as it sounds) by putting in a fantastic shift to deny Wolves time and again.

Pick of the bunch came right at the end, while there was still only a goal in it, when he parried away a powerful shot from Berra. When the final whistle blew Fabianski afforded himself a little roar of approval. He was a lion last night.

We couldn’t have started the game better, Chamakh heading in a lovely Sagna cross [correction – it was Song] before a minute was up, but when Arshavin (otherwise very good, I thought) missed a one-on-one, Wolves came back into it and though we had other chances to seal it sooner than we did – Fabregas missed a good one – much of the rest of the game was for marvelling both at Wolves’ dogged refusal to give in and at Arsenal’s for once solid back line. It was only our third clean sheet in 12 league games. Their rarity makes me enjoy them even more.

The inability to put the game to bed sooner did lead to a collective outbreak of heart palpitations on Twitter, with Sunderland and countless other late concessions in mind, but the late counter sealed it.

I must admit, I was impressed by the Wanderers and McCarthy’s exasperation at yet another defeat is understandable. They played very well.

Fabregas’s yellow card gave everyone another talking point. It might have been red on another day and with a different referee, but I think yellow was probably the right call. It was not a good tackle at all. Afterwards, Cesc sought out Ward and apologised, saying it was an accident. That took all the sting out of the situation but it’s interesting that we have now had two such incidents committed by our players this season – Wilshere and now Fabregas. Rightly or wrongly, it’s cannon fodder for critics of Wenger’s stance on bad tackles.

Apologising is a good start, learning from it a wise outcome.

Ovewall

After two very poor performances this was a pivotal test. Lose it and the knives would truly have been out. But we ground out a very good win, and off we go again into happyland. We’re well placed. Let’s keep going.