Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1 – Podolski Inspires Arsenal Who Recover Their Groove
Admittedly, I was rather nervous as last night’s encounter with West Ham approached. We’re now in a territory where we can’t afford to be dropping any more points in a run in that pits us against several teams fighting for Premier League survival.
And yesterday we were up against a side that, although managed by a Walrus, had just had over a week’s rest whereas we had had only two full days recovery following our 120 minutes plus penalties against Wigan on Saturday.
When I saw our team, I was even more worried. I only really had confidence that Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Kim Kallstrom, the latter making his full first team debut, would have legs capable of making it through the 90 minutes due to their limited involvement in Saturday’s game at Wembley.
A left hand flank of Thomas Vermaelen and Podolski petrified me. Another start for both Bacary Sagna and Per Mertesacker, after all the football they’ve played recently, had me queasy. How Mikel Arteta was expected to play again after such a mammoth effort on Saturday I didn’t quite know, and without Aaron Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the starting line up I wasn’t sure where our attacking inspiration was going to come from, with Santi Cazorla not quite firing as of late.
It all proves that we mere observants from afar don’t quite know as much as we think we do. Well not in my case anyway, as those above fears above were turned on their head by full time, as Arsenal in the end comfortably dispatched of West Ham and returned, temporarily at least, to the coveted fourth spot in the Premier League.
Not that we didn’t make it hard for ourselves along the way. We started relatively flat and there was a lack of impetuous and incentive in the final third. Podolski did flash a ball across goal with no one around on the other end, and Giroud wasted a glorious chance after he was deliciously slipped in by Cazorla, but chose to flick it past Adrian in goal with his left foot, when he should’ve buried it with his right.
Early frustrations turned to panic stations as West Ham patiently went about their business, and after Mohamed Diame spurned a glorious chance to give the visitors the lead as he scooped one over the bar, it was Matt Jarvis who did open the scoring in the 40th minute.
Antonio Nocerino broke into some space down our left, with Vermaelen pushed up and Kallstrom sleeping. His shot forced a parry from Wojciech Szczesny and we just stood around after that. Koscielny went for the clearance but Nocerino got to it first. It sat up for Jarvis, who headed it past Mertesacker into the net and The Hammers were in front.
This required a response from Arsenal, and we got one just minutes later as Podolski fired us level. It was borne out of an error by West Ham as they failed to clear it properly from deep in their right corner, with the ball landing at Cazorla’s feet just outside of the area. He produced a superb through ball that split the defence, Podolski took a couple of quick touches to get the ball from under his feet, then drilled it into the far corner giving Adrian no chance but to pick the ball from out of the net.
We came out after the break very lively and took the lead ten minutes into the half. After a series of corners and a spell of pressure, West Ham cleared the ball back to Vermaelen who sent a high ball into the area towards Giroud. The Frenchman managed to shrug off the distractions of having Andy Carroll and Winston Reid back into him, collected the ball with his left foot and buried it with his right, through the legs of Adrian who was again helpless.
It was a supreme bit of skill by Giroud with which he registered with 20th goal of the season, and after his shocking miss in the first period it was great to see him back himself with his weaker foot when in on goal.
West Ham faded from here, much to the annoyance of the Walrus on the touchline and the delight of the Arsenal fans located nearby, and the home side started to play some lovely football, spearheaded by the majestic Cazorla who was unlucky not to score himself as he cut in and struck one just wide of the post.
Ramsey was introduced just after the 70-minute mark for Tomas Rosicky who looked perhaps as if he hadn’t fully recovered from the injury that kept him out of the side that beat Wigan on Saturday.
But it didn’t take the Welshman long to make his mark on the game in what proved to be a commanding 20 minute performance, as Arsenal wrapped up the points in the 78th minute.
Giroud drifted out to the left and picked out Ramsey on the edge of the area with a lobbed cross. With the ball going away from goal, Ramsey cushioned a header perfectly into the path of Podolski, who let the ball run across his body before thrashing it into the goal from close range.
Much like the first goal, it was borne out of a super assist and a clinical finish and from here the game was done and Arsenal closed it out without any problems, with Carl Jenkinson coming on for Cazorla in the dying moments just to sure up the right hand side with Sagna looking absolutely shattered.
In the end we got the result we desperately needed and the second half was the best football we’ve played since the same period against Manchester City last month. There was a spark and confidence in the side that hadn’t really been on show in the past few games, plus our work rate off the ball was phenomenal.
Cazorla was the driving force behind the team; it was his precision passing that set up a variety of chances, including the Giroud miss and Podolski goal in the first half. But also off the ball he worked his socks off, got stuck into a physical West Ham side and led the Arsenal pressing game that looked to be back in action.
I was impressed with the holding duo of Kallstrom and Arteta, too. The former showed a bit of sloppiness at times with his passing and he was caught out for the Jarvis goal, but he battled hard in the middle and gave us a presence we’d previously missed. I’ve liked what I’ve seen of him since his January arrival and expect he’ll be further involved as the season draws to a close.
Arteta had another phenomenal game, too. I thought Diame got the better of him in the first half, but Arteta raised his game in the second and dominated the middle of the park. Not just defensively, but we saw some great skill and vision with him moving forward with the ball too. After a tough few weeks, he’s responded exceptionally well to the criticism he’s received. His professionalism has prevailed and he looks again like the Mikel Arteta we’ve been so reliant on in the middle of the park.
Ramsey’s arrival brought another level to our performance altogether. His attitude, effort and ability shone in exemplary fashion even in only 20 minutes on the pitch. His fitness is key to our run in and with Mesut Ozil reportedly back for Hull at the weekend, we could be looking at an almost full strength attacking line up for the remainder of the season, which would be a huge boost.
Football is so reliant on combinations around the park and seeing Koscielny and Mertesacker back next to each other was a big relief. Despite conceding a shaky goal, they looked more than comfortable next to each other as always, and ensured Carroll was frustrated and non-existent throughout the game.
My pre-match concerns about the left hand channel of our pitch were unfounded, with Vermaelen having one of his better games this season at left back. He was solid at the back and also got forward to support Podolski too, who took his finishes brilliantly but equally remained involved in a lot of our attacking play and played the full 90 minutes too, which was a rarity in itself.
We did struggle on the right hand side of the pitch, though. Sagna looked knackered and again had to do a two man job as Rosicky and Cazorla, who combined to fill the wide right spot, played their natural game of regularly cutting in. Sagna patrolled that flank almost single-handed and it’s clear that doing it for so long, with the absence of Theo Walcott, is tiring him out. The decision to bring Jenkinson on to close the game out was reminiscent of the many times Wenger has introduced Monreal to lock out the left hand channel with Gibbs behind him, and I think in the run in it might be a tactic used on the right more and more if we need to hold on to games.
A final word on Giroud. He took his goal brilliantly, and I’m thankful he got it right after his woeful effort in the first period. We all know he isn’t the world-class superstar we want leading our line, but yesterday he again did his job and linked up well with those behind him. Now that we have Ramsey back, we have someone in the team who can charge on and fill the forward holes that Giroud leaves empty when he drifts wide and the third goal was testament to how their combination can work effectively when utilised in that way.
If we can maintain the performance levels and effort shown in the second half yesterday and apply it to our remaining fixtures, then there’s every reason to be confident about our end of season chances.
The ‘Race for Fourth’ is alive and kicking, but we need results to go in our favour now and hope that Everton drop points if we’re to make it once more. If they do, we need to make sure we capitalise on it and make the most on the opportunity, as given the way they’re playing we can’t be reliant on them slipping up too often, despite the tough fixtures they have.
Next we face Hull City on Sunday so hopefully now we can take confidence from the past two games and keep the momentum going as we reach the final four League games of the season. There’s plenty up for grabs so it’s imperative we keep the foot on the gas and finish the season strong.