You could see it on the face of the manager. This was a cup final. Win, and the Arsenal secured third place and another season of Champions League football. Lose, and the Arsenal would finish fourth and run the risk of Chelsea taking their place in Europe by dint of winning the Champions League.
Arsenal went ahead in the fourth minute off a gaffe by reserve goalkeeper Martin Fulop. A simple ball over the top wasn’t collected properly and Yossi Benayoun nipped in to open the accounts. The perfect start to the perfect day in the Hawthorns, rapture for the fans, the players, and the manager.
West Brom weren’t done, though, and fired back. Twice the midfield played balls over the top to a solitary striker who got half a yard on the defenders and fired low and to the left from considerable distance. Twice West Brom scored from two “half-chances” and in the space of 15 minutes the Arsenal’s rapture turned into fear. The season hung in the balance and in Arsenal’s typical way had conceded goals from long balls over the top, undoing Arsenal’s high defensive line and exploiting injury to the Arsenal keeper.
But Arsenal weren’t done either and in the 30th minute Alex Song dispossessed an Albion player in their own half. Arsenal’s Andre Santos latched onto the ball, juked left, jinked right, and fired in his own shot from distance. 2-2. Arsene Wenger pumped his fists and tried to fire his team up “COME ON”. This was no ordinary match end of season stroll in the early summer English sun, like I said, this was a cup final.
The game was decided in the 55th minute. Robin van Persie’s corner kick seemed to hang in the air for a dog’s age and when West Brom’s keeper came to claim it, he was caught in what looked like three minds: punch, catch, or panic. He punched. Sort of. The ball spun slowly in the air and it was the most unlikely of players who pounced and put the ball in the back of the net, Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny.
Arsenal hung on for the last 35 minutes as West Brom attacked in wave after wave. Helpless on the sideline, Arsene Wenger was left clutching his assistant manager, Pat Rice, out of desperation. I think if the league would have allowed it, both men would put on their Copas and gone into the Arsenal defense to see the game out.
Much has changed in the nearly seven months since that last meeting. Most of the names I’ve read off above for Arsenal have gone. Pat Rice retired and was replaced by Steve Bould, Robin van Persie was sold to Man U, Benayoun’s loan ended, Alex Song was sold to Barcelona, and Andre Santos is going through a rough patch at Arsenal and cannot get his name on the team sheet.
West Brom have changed a number of things as well. Most importantly, they got rid of their reserve keeper, Martin Fulop. Though, their number one choice did just have groin surgery and they will be forced to use a backup again, Boas Myhill, when they face Arsenal tomorrow. The Baggies have also brought in an exciting Argentinian midfielder named Claudio Yacobs, the silent assassin they call him, to pair with the ever active Youssuf Mulumbu in the midfield anchor spots.
Yacobs is the kind of player that myth tells us Arsene Wenger used to sign. Claimed on the cheap, he plays like Gilberto once did for Arsenal; efficient, quiet, and with just enough of an edge to let you know he is there. It’s no coincidence that he is being mentioned as a potential target for Manchester United.
But while things have changed, the importance of this game has not. Having won just 3 of their last 10 home games, and with a League record which has them both 15 points off the top and the bottom*, Arsenal are in the doldrums and looking like a team that wishes the season were over already.
Though, there are signs of life yet in this Arsenal team. Two of the most experienced players at the club have taken to the public airwaves and stated plainly that the team is dissatisfied with the results so far. Mikel Arteta, who really should be captain, told the press that the players are “hurting” at Arsenal.
You look at the players’ faces, the disappointment, the hurt. They want to put it right. You’ve got players here demanding and wanting to do extra training.
Tomas Rosicky is the one, though, who explained what it is that they want to put right:
We have to win the people (home fans) again. That’s the challenge. As I said, we did it last year so why not do it again? It will be difficult, there is no doubt about that, we are capable of doing it again. If we are all on board, Arsenal is a great place to play football, but we have to stick together and fight.
That’s the backdrop for tomorrow’s game: Arsenal need to set the ship right. To do so they need to give a convincing performance in every position on the pitch and on the sidelines.
West Brom won’t be easy. They have beaten Chelsea this season and they will be looking to take the game to Arsenal and exploit the soft underbelly of Arsenal’s high line. But if Arsenal can come out and just keep the pressure on for the full 90, if they can create shots from all over the front line, if they can get some swagger and play with a little bit of the old magic that Wenger was able to inject into so many teams for so long, they could just about win some fans back. Or at least start winning them back.
Arsenal need to treat this like a cup game. Just like they did last season. And it is a cup game of sorts. The 4th place cup is at stake, West Brom are there in Arsenal’s rightful place, and the Arsenal need to come out and take it back.
*The only way that Arsenal could be more perfectly mid table is if somehow they were in the same position with a record of 5-5-5. As it stands, Arsenal have an edge in draws with 5-6-4.