West Bromwich Albion 1-2 Arsenal: Nerve-Wracking

Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnd, exhale.

This was undoubtedly a match that Arsenal could not lose in the race for fourth place. Two well-taken goals and a staunch late-game defensive stand ensured that all three points came back with us from the Hawthorns, continuing a solid run of good form in the league. 

 Arsene Wenger continued with the same 11 that saw off Reading last week, while surprisingly Steve Clarke left Romelu Lukaku on the bench. Albion are a decent side even in his absence though, and controlled much of the early exchanges. While the Baggies couldn't find an early goal, they did expose a few cracks in what had been a solid back five in recent matches.

Laurent Koscielny, who has been excellent lately, was a bit lucky to head over the bar with Lukasz Fabianski much better placed to catch it. The keeper gave him an earful afterwards, and rightfully so. Soon after, Claudio Yacob's unmarked header from a corner kick was on the frame, but Tomas Rosicky was there to head it off the line.

Specific mention has to go to Bacary Sagna though, who was absolutely putrid on both sides of the ball. His crossing was horrendous, he looked miles off the pace and (as usual for our fullbacks) he often drifted too far inside. Count me in among those who think the boss needs to seriously consider starting Carl Jenkinson next week. Sagna's been a solid hand these last few years, but he has all the look of someone who knows he's off in the summer and has subsequently lost his motivation.

Our opponents didn't have it all their own way though, and for all their decent play they found themselves down a goal at the 20' mark. Would you believe that Gervinho was the architect once again? He collected the ball on the left wing and went for a nice, mazy dribble into the penalty area. The Brom defenders stood off of him, seemingly trying to goad him into a bad pass. Instead, a quick feint gave him space to send in what looked like a shot. The home defenders were horribly static, ball-watching when they should have been limiting Gervinho's options. Rosicky read it perfectly, and timed his run to perfection. His header was against the grain, wrong-footing Ben Foster in the Albion goal.

That excellent team effort had given us the lead, but that only made Brom redouble their efforts. They won a free kick outside the penalty area, and for me Fabianski set up his wall poorly with only three men, and Santi Cazorla being the right-most one (the problem here is that you have your smallest man defending the area you're going for if you're shooting for the near top corner). Chris Brunt took it, and outsmarted the wall by shooting low as they jumped. Fabianski was going the other way, but did fantastically well to get back across and hold on to the shot. Brilliant keeping from the Pole, there.

Actually, the keepers had a bit of a duel going in the first half - Foster doing well to block a Gervinho shot with his legs, Fabianski countering with a nice catch from a deflected Graham Dorrans cross. Again, early wobbles on high balls aside, he put in a confident display between the sticks.

Aaron Ramsey was another that played well, as he showed a much-improved range of passing and intelligence of movement. That said, he managed a quite astonishing miss late in the first half that luckily did not prove as costly as it could have. Cazorla played Rosicky into acres of space in the middle (Brom's defensive spacing was a bit muddled all day), and he played it up to Giroud. The big Frenchman chested it down to Santi, whose pass back was perfect.  Giroud back-heeled it into the center of the area, onto Ramsey's left foot. Had he took it first time, the Welshman would have scored - Foster had lost his footing and was out of the play. Instead, he shifted to his right, which allowed Billy Jones time to get back and challenge him from behind. Ramsey had to rush the shot, and he toe-poked it wide of the post.

To their credit, the Gunners rebounded from that disappointment and took control early in the second half. A one-two between Sagna and Gervinho saw the former with a decent shot on goal from a tough angle, but Foster had come out well to cut off the angle. He was down for a while after making the save though, and I believe that ended up as a massive turning point in the match. 

A few minutes later, Brunt turned the ball over in our half, and Arsenal countered at pace. Two quick passes gave Ramsey the run of the right wing. Rosicky once again destroyed his marker with a well-timed run, opening space in the penalty area. His first shot was right at Foster, but he could only awkwardly bat it away. He was then very slow getting to the rebound - Rosicky beat him to it and put away his own rebound. It was horrific defending from Brom, but even worse keeping. It made me think Foster was still feeling the effects of that knock - but given how huge this goal was for our ambitions, I can't say I'm overwhelmed with sympathy.

The home side kept fighting though, and might have clawed one back when Long found James Morrison in the penalty area. Per Mertesacker fell as he tried to follow him, but still somehow managed to scramble it away.

Evil portents were in the air though, as the Baggies began to put Arsenal under sustained pressure. A long ball to Brunt left our high backline for dead, with Mertesacker especially slow to get back. Brunt's bad-angle shot was awkward to deal with, but Fabianski dealt with it well in saving with his legs. It also bears mentioning that Sagna was absolutely nowhere at that point, far behind the play and not exactly busting a lung to try and get there.

Disaster may have been averted there, but it came calling again a few minutes later. Another long ball resulted in our defenders being caught up too high again. Mertesacker was again slow to get back, and this time Long was going to be in alone on Fabianski. The BFG had to go for the slide tackle, but didn't time it right and out came the red card (Quick aside: Not to be contrarian, but Howard Webb had an exceptional game. Sorry, but it's true). Morrison took the penalty, and in truth it was a ghastly one. Fabianski had dived the right way, but he actually got too high into the air and only grazed the shot with his leg on its way in. As good as a game as he had overall, he had to save that one - on a penalty kick, you have to concede that any good high shot is going in. All you can do is pick a side and take away the low shot in that direction.

Since I'm on that subject, a quick observation - Fabianski has improved tremendously and has done so at the right time for us. But, long-term, I insist that he is not the answer in goal for us. The ideal strategy for me would be to get a solid age 34-to-36 keeper to be the No. 1 for one season or at most two, with Wojceich Szczesny playing in the cups and learning from the older guy.

Anyway, needless to say, Arsenal were well under the cosh after going down to 10 men. The Baggies had their tails up, and were looking to take advantage of Thomas Vermaelen coming into the game. Gervinho was sacrificed, the intention clearly being to bunker at that point. At the time, I felt it was far too early to do so, and frankly only some woeful finishing from the home side allowed us to get away with it.

Lukaku in particular tormented us after the red, having come on earlier for Dorrans. Sagna was nothing resembling a match for him, and he often had the time and space to do exactly as he wished. Koscielny also continued his up-and-down play. He made some timely blocks and interceptions along the way, but was badly out-jumped on a corner kick in the 80th minute by Gareth McCauley. Thankfully, he lashed a towering header wide of the post.

Arsene continued to shore up the defense, with Rosicky coming off for Kieran Gibbs. Ten minutes is a long time to bunker, but at least he went all-in with his chosen strategy. 

The Baggies should have equalized four minutes later, though. Nacho Monreal allowed Billy Jones to get his cross into the box, but our center-halves did well to close down Morrison. The ball took an unusual deflection out to Lukaku on the left, who was completely unmarked? Why, you ask? Well, that would be because Sagna decided to drift inside (where two men were already all over Morrison) instead of marking the back post (which was, you know, his job and stuff). Lady Luck was adorned in red and white again though, as Lukaku's composure failed him. NORAD is now tracking the shot, as it reached low Earth orbit.

Speaking of launching satellites, it was Long's turn soon after. The Baggies were really turning the screw now, and it was Lukaku at the heart of it again. He took advantage of his now customary time and space and combined with Liam Ridgewell to find Long open in the penalty area. Long could only do his Lukaku impersonation though, another chance frittered away.

It wasn't all Brom failing, though. Jones (who was easily their best player on the day) played in the substitute Markus Rosenberg. Fabianski was super sharp to come off his line and timed his dive at the Swede's feet to perfection.

All hands were now emphatically to the pumps, and additional help came as Francis Coquelin was thrown on in place of Cazorla. The Arsenal defense held though, even when temporarily down to 9 men when Giroud limped off. What felt like eons passed, but finally Webb blew his whistle and the day was ours.

We are now one point behind the now Bale-less nearest and dearest, having played the same amount of games. Chelsea is a point behind, and they play their game in hand today against Sunderland. Whisper it, but Manchester City are only six points ahead, and their game in hand is the derby against United (which I predict that they will lose).

There's still a long way to go, and many points that need to be earned. So far, so good though.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Fabianski 7, Monreal 7, Koscielny 6, Mertesacker 5, Sagna 3, Arteta 7, Ramsey 7, Gervinho 8 (Vermaelen 7), Rosicky 8 (Gibbs 7), Cazorla 8 (Coquelin N/A), Giroud 7

Man of the Match:  There have been quite a few Gooners who have been clamoring for Tomas Rosicky to play more all season long. Those Gooners are extremely smart individuals.