Victory, and vindication, for Wenger
Few things please a manager as much as being right when the majority assume they are wrong. Few, too, are as happy to fly in the face of popular opinion as Arsene Wenger. If obstinacy is an essential ingredient in the manager's make-up then Wenger is among the finest.
As Arsenal took a giant stride towards a 16th successive season of Champions League football, the Frenchman had much to savour. When his side were in the ascendant, he could purr over the contributions of Tomas Rosicky and Gervinho, men who, in their contrasting ways, can be seen as quintessential Wenger players by his critics.
When they were depleted by Per Mertesacker's dismissal, there was the determination to ensure they weren't defeated, nervously but grimly hanging on to their advantage. Every time Thomas Vermaelen hoofed or headed clear, the purists showed their pragmatic side and Wenger's heart swelled with pride.
"We have shown two aspects to our game," he said. "[First], the control and technical quality and [then] one that is less known, the fighting spirit and battling qualities that reflect well on the spirit in our side."
When they were on the front foot, Arsenal had the stylist and the speedster to thank for their parts in a sixth win in seven league games. Neither Rosicky nor Gervinho, in all probability, would be found in the squad of any of the other challengers for Champions League places. The Czech is definitely injury-prone and, in most eyes, often ineffective. At a club with Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere, he can seem a spare part, a player best suited to the position Arsenal's two greatest talents favour.
For Wenger, however, he is a talisman in the run-in. "Every year he gives us a push at the end of the season," he said. "I hope he finishes his career with us. I rate him that highly." The midfielder with a job for life was only making his second league start of the season but, with two goals, a goal-line clearance and a caution, he was ubiquitous in the first 50 minutes.
When Wenger stockpiles short, slight players, it is not normally for their aerial ability. Nevertheless, Rosicky twice made decisive interventions with his head, first denying Claudio Yacob a goal and then scoring one himself, arriving at the near post to convert Gervinho's cross. His tally was doubled with a satisfying swing of the right boot after Ben Foster had blocked his initial attempt.
Before then, Aaron Ramsey had spurned a glorious opening and Gervinho, an unpredictable catalyst, had tormented the Albion defence. "When you have the ball and go forward, he looks dangerous," Wenger added.
When his name appears on the teamsheet, however, a section of the support seem plunged deep into depression. Inconsistent, infuriating, with his development having seemingly stalled and his best position still a subject for debate, Gervinho became a byword for all that was wrong with Arsenal.
He may be again but, over the last three games, the idiosyncratic Ivorian has been uncharacteristically excellent. There was a goal at Swansea; another, plus two assists, against Reading; and, as provider for Rosicky at The Hawthorns, he was the creator of a third strike in eight days. "He has another assist," Wenger said, noting that a profligate player is proving productive.
The travelling Gunners preferred to salute a more dependable figure. But, after chorusing about having a big German, they were deprived of one when Mertesacker departed and James Morrison scored the resulting penalty. "I don't complain about the sending off," said Wenger. "It was a professional foul."
Enter Vermaelen, unused by his club since the North London derby, as West Bromwich Albion mounted an onslaught. "He did very well when he came on," Wenger said. He needed to. Albion had an impact substitute of their own, even if the on-going debate about Lukaku is whether he should start more often or torment tiring defences as a replacement.
Head coach Steve Clarke denied his initial omission was because his father had been sentenced to 15 months in a Belgian prison. Instead, he said, this was his regular gameplan of using Long from the start, and the late bombardment almost yielded an equaliser. "We created a number of good chances that fell to people who normally score them," he said. "So on another day we are talking about a good comeback from 2-0 down."
Instead, Lukaku's two employers, Albion and Chelsea, ended the day disappointed as Arsenal defeated the Midlanders and leapfrogged the Londoners. Once again, they are in the top four. As ever, they have done it Wenger's way.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Tomas Rosicky. A performance to bring back memories of the second half of last season when he helped galvanise Arsenal during another surge up the table.
WEST BROM VERDICT: Clarke is adamant their season will not peter out and has set a target of 50 points with another home win to clinch a club record in the Premier League years. Certainly there was no lack of effort and the shame for Albion was that Youssouf Mulumbu, who might have helped disrupt Arsenal's passing game, was suspended after his bizarre red card at West Ham. Peter Odemwingie was not even on bench but Clarke said that was because of injury.
ARSENAL VERDICT: They should be stronger when Norwich visit the Emirates Stadium on Saturday with Wenger expecting both Theo Walcott and Wilshere to be fit. This showed the depth of their resources in midfield, with Rosicky and Ramsey, neither of whom may figure in Wenger's strongest side, impressing.