A measure of how Arsenal have developed over each season can always be taken from their performances from the more physical sides in the Premier League – and judging by how comfortably Arsene Wenger’s men eased past Birmingham City, they can now seriously be considered title challengers.
The win leaves Arsenal just two points behind league leaders Manchester United but Wenger will take more heart out of how his side brushed off Birmingham’s robust presence and prevailed with sharp and intricate passing which often left the hosts bewildered.
But much depended on the form of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, as the duo combined on regular occasions to expose Birmingham’s typically resilient defence. Twinned with how Jack Wilshere and Alex Song controlled the centre of midfield with presence as well as ability, as well as Johan Djourou’s confident display at the back, Arsenal’s title challenge once again looks on course.
Wenger, perhaps conscious of dropping further points away from home, decided to make eight changes to his side which drew with Wigan three days ago and revert back to the starting personnel who dispatched champions Chelsea with relative ease at the Emirates.
Alex McLeish elected not to change his starting lineup from the one which gained a point against Manchester United on Tuesday and similar to their approach to the current league leaders, Birmingham started the game with plenty of work rate but little possession.
Birmingham, buoyed by their recent record at St Andrew’s against Arsenal, continued in similar fashion to their previous encounters, as a series of robust challenges were made on the visitors in the opening exchanges.
But Wenger’s side took an early and thoroughly deserved lead as a direct result of one of Birmingham’s heavy tackles, as Van Persie’s free-kick on the edge of the area took a deflection off the hosts’ wall and bounced low past a sprawling Ben Foster.
The Arsenal of old may have been less inclined to deal with Birmingham’s physical approach, but Wenger’s men have developed a tough skin and the duo of Wilshere and Song in the centre matched the grit of Lee Bowyer and Barry Ferguson.
Arsenal’s title hopes are also pinned on their captain Fabregas. The Spaniard relished once again in the opening half against Birmingham upon his return from suspension and the midfielder orchestrated the majority of the visitors’ attacking play.
Birmingham, aside from their work rate, offered little in the way of chances before the interval and Cameron Jerome, who operated as a lone striker, was marshalled well by Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou.
McLeish’s side forced Lukasz Fabianski into quick action only once before the half-time whistle. Seb Larsson’s free-kick was on target and struck well, but the Polish goalkeeper superbly tipped the ball round the post.
Wenger’s primary concern in the opening half would have been his side’s evident inability to fashion clear-cut chances against such a resilient opposition. Theo Walcott, offered pace but was frequently ignored by the overlapping Bacary Sagna, and Robin van Persie spurned a glorious one-on-one opportunity with a lethargic finish which Foster saved comfortably.
Moments earlier, the Dutchman was guilty of handling the ball in his own area but the officials missed the infringement, much to the disgust of the home fans and McLeish on the touchline.
Birmingham could have levelled proceedings after Larsson’s lofted free-kick was flicked on by Jerome but Roger Johnson at the back post could only direct his effort harmlessly over the bar.
Birmingham started the second half brighter but Arsenal could have doubled their advantage in quick succession as Wilshere smashed his volleyed effort over the bar after a piece of incisive play on the right wing by Walcott, and moments later, Nasri raced clear but failed to loft his shot high enough over Foster, who spread himself well.
But the Frenchman put Arsenal two ahead after a spell of sustained possession and intricate passes which left the hosts watching and admiring. Finally Nasri was slipped through and the midfielder was given far too much time to guide his effort low past a helpless Foster.
Wenger’s men put the game beyond any doubt eight minutes later as another passage of short and sharp passes, with Fabregas and Nasri at the heart, allowed the Spaniard to find room in the box but his hard shot from a narrow angle was blocked by Foster, but unfortunately for the hosts, Johnson on the goal-line could not react quick enough and the ball bounced off the defender and into the net.
Following their third, Arsenal could have gone on to score more and further damage the goal difference of Birmingham but a combination of poor finishing and over-passing kept the score at three-nil and subsequently left the hosts in the relegation zone.