Arsenal 1 West Bromwich Albion 0
If styles make fights, as boxing promoters holler, it is little surprise that West Bromwich Albion provided an entertaining, ambitious but largely impotent display at the Emirates Stadium.
They battled bravely and commendably but while the Gunners are a heavyweight in the mould of Muhammad Ali, the Baggies resembled a middleweight, perhaps Sugar Ray Leonard.
While both were undoubtedly pugilists for the purist, one packs a considerably bigger punch than the other.
West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal will be fighting in different weight divisions within the Premier League this season, which is why the Baggies decision to try and out-style the most stylish side in it always seemed unlikely.
They were beaten but deserve credit in losing to a solitary goal and showed their potential to prove a lot of doubters wrong, most of whom have already resigned Tony Mowbray’s side to relegation.
If they are the same people tipping Arsene Wenger’s side as title contenders, they should change their minds.
Two techniques which have proved relatively successful against Arsenal in recent seasons – the Bolton way: to bombard the box at all times and to kick any skillful footballer that moves – were never going to be contemplated by a manager of Mowbray’s beliefs.
Indeed, there wasn’t even a booking and the ball buzzed hypnotically across the Emirates Stadium’s perfect pitch.
Arsenal started with gusto.
Imagine Theo Walcott, who deteriorated rapidly, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Denilson and Gael Clichy popping up all over the place in a sort-of footballing version of Blitzkrieg.
It was Nasri, Wenger’s £12?million summer signing, who put the home side ahead on four minutes after finishing off the sort of pleasing move that has become his new club’s hallmark.
A rout looked was possible but when Nicklas Bendtner missed a free header from a corner, William Gallas’ shot from 30 yards whistled past Scott Carson’s post and few other close shaves were averted Albion settled.
James Morrison and Jonathan Greening offered a calming reassurance on the ball and the team appeared more comfortable as the game wore on, except on the right side where Carl Hoefkens, in the kindest possible terms, was having the sort of experience that requires counselling afterwards.
Had it not been for the efforts of Leon Barnett, some of the Belgian’s glaring positional errors would have proved more costly.
Wasteful finishing was also to blame for Arsenal’s slender lead but for all their profligacy they seemed untroubled at the back.
With just Ishmael Miller alone up front, who has probably never worked as hard in an Albion shirt, the Baggies were fortunate to find another useful outlet in Kim Do-Heon who, like Gianfranco Zola in his pomp, relied on his sharp technique and low centre of gravity to prove adept at holding the ball up and relieving pressure.
It was down to Kim’s neat reverse pass that Albion almost drew level shortly after the break.
Miller forced a good save out of the irritatingly loquacious Manuel Almunia before the ball fell to Paul Robinson, whose side foot shot was then cleared off the line.
It is hard to find fault with anything Miller did but the chance he had to equalise is the sort of opening Albion need him to take in this division.
Kevin Phillips would have done.
That being said, a point for the Baggies would have been an injustice given Arsenal’s dominance.
The home side created so many opportunities to score which they either spurned or were denied by the kind of heroic last-gasp resistance more commonly associated with Stalingrad.
Barnett was largely excellent, especially when defending one on one after being left hopelessly exposed by the ineptitude of Hoefkens.
The full back seemed oddly unable to pick out the not indistinct runs of the 6ft 4in frame of a galloping Adebayor.
On one occasion he ghosted in and missed the target with just Carson to beat, which was so bad it drew boos from Arsenal’s faithful.
Adebayor is not the most popular player at the Emirates given his angling for a move or a vastly improved contract in the summer.
In many ways he summed the Gunners up: athletically brilliant, quick, strong and capable – but lacking the cutting edge where it mattered.
Scorer: Nasri (4).
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Djourou, Clichy; Walcott (Toure, 72), Denilson, Nasri, Eboue; Adebayor, Bendtner (Van Persie, 69). Substitutes: Fabianski, Vela, Ramsey, Wilshere, Randall.
West Bromwich Albion (4-5-1): Carson; Hoefkens, Barnett, Meite, Robinson; Brunt (Beattie, 80), Morrison, Greening, Kim, Cech (Macdonald, 67); Miller (Bednar, 73). Substitutes: Kiely, Dorrans, Pele, Martis.
Referee: Howard Webb (S Yorkshire)