West Ham vs. Arsenal: Walcott’s finishing offsets poor team selection

   The Gunners overcame some dreadful finishing and a poor team selection on Thursday to rally past West Ham 3-1 in the Premier League. The Hammers had two more days of rest than Arsenal. However, Wenger made just one change from the side that drew 0-0 with Chelsea on Monday, resting Rosicky to start Cazorla on the left wing.

   How could the manager’s team selection be wrong if Arsenal won? The Gunners clearly looked tired in the first half. Offensively, a lack of movement hurt the passing options. Defensively, the team was split in two on West Ham’s counterattacks because some players could not make the effort to track back.

Wenger’s gamble on Ramsey’s health

   Ramsey and Giroud have proven instrumental in Arsenal’s rise to the top this season, but they were not sharp on Thursday. Ramsey’s high turnover rate against Chelsea was an obvious sign that he was hitting the wall physically. Wenger took a risk by starting the Wales midfielder at the Boleyn Ground. Ramsey picked up a thigh injury and was replaced by Podolski in the 65th minute. I thought it was a silly move from the manager. The Gunners had enough depth on the bench to win without Ramsey. Flamini or even Monreal could have deputized in midfield. Ramsey made a lot of sloppy passes. His only decent contribution was a ball over the top for Walcott, who volleyed wide from close range in the 26th.

Giroud’s poor run of form

   Giroud has never been a clinical striker, but he missed five clear-cut chances against West Ham. Sagna made a pinpoint cross from the right flank in the seventh minute, but Giroud was a split second late to connect with the ball for a close-range header. Giroud then collected a through ball from Ozil in the 33rd to be clean through on goal, but he dragged his shot wide from 16 yards. In that kind of situation, a good striker must catch the frame and force the keeper to make a save. If that means placing the ball and kicking with less power, then Giroud should do it. Ozil played a one-two with Cazorla in the 42nd before cutting the ball back for Giroud. The Frenchman was again a split second late to slide the ball home. On the stroke of halftime, Giroud could have tapped home from three yards but he failed to connect with a  low cross from Gibbs.

   When a striker so often misses the ball by inches, there can be only two explanations. Either he can’t read the play and therefore fails to anticipate the pass. Or his legs are tired and he’s late on every play. Giroud again failed to meet a teasing cross from Sagna in the 51st. The Frenchman is clearly going through a poor run of form. Wenger probably thought that Giroud could boost his confidence by scoring against a weak side. But the manager’s idea has backfired. Giroud is more exhausted, low on confidence, and still chasing his first goal since the 2-0 win over Southampton in November.  

Arteta’s passing skills vs. Flamini’s defending skills

   A lot of Arsenal fans are divided over who is the first-choice holding midfielder between Flamini and Arteta. Wenger decided to give Arteta the nod and leave Flamini on the bench. Flamini is faster than Arteta but the manager’s choice made sense. Arteta used to be a playmaker and has therefore better passing skills while Flamini used to play at fullback and is therefore a better defender. The priority against West Ham was to create plays and Arteta’s skills were simply more useful in such a context.

   The Gunners could have led by three or four goals at halftime with better finishing. Despite Arsenal’s poor defensive shape, the Hammers could only threaten from set pieces and a long-range effort from Diame in the first half. Szczesny palmed away a curling free kick from Noble in the 10th and came off his line to force Nolan to flick wide after the West Ham midfielder capitalized on a lapse of concentration from the Gunners to connect with a free kick from Noble in the 45th.

Szczesny’s nonchalance

   West Ham caught the Gunners off guard at the restart with a counterattack on Sagna’s flank. Arteta cleared a cross into the path of Nolan, who took his chance with a tame low drive from the edge of the box. Szczesny spilled the ball and Carlton Cole got ahead of Gibbs to tap in. Obviously, Szczesny and Arteta were guilty on that play, but the Hammers easily reached the box because our forwards and attacking midfielders failed to track back and left the team split in two. That’s not Szczesny’s first blunder this season. He will have to work hard to erase that ‘nonchalant’ tag. In the 83rd, he sent a routine clearance kick straight into touch. 

A decline in defensive discipline

   West Ham could have doubled the lead in the following minutes. A lack of pressure from Arsenal midfielders allowed Noble to slip a through ball to Jarvis, who was denied by Szczesny in the 51st. The heart of our defense was exposed on that play. The Hammers also exploited the porosity of our wings. Gibbs gave Diame too much space for a cross in the 54th but O’Brien, who escaped Mertesacker’s marking, headed wide. A counterattack then developed on Sagna’s flank in the 57th. Carlton Cole again got ahead of Gibbs but flicked Rat’s cross wide. Arsenal’s success this year has relied a lot on its defensive tightness. The Gunners still have the second tightest defense in the league, but a lack of defensive discipline could cost them points in the title race.

Momentum shift

   The momentum suddenly changed when Podolski came on for the injured Ramsey. The German forward definitely adds more directness to our game. Arsenal’s equalizer came from a deep pass from Arteta to Ozil in the 68th. The German playmaker found Cazorla, who released Walcott down the right wing. Walcott cut inside to fire a low strike that Adrian fumbled into his own net. Podolski increased the pressure on the West Ham defense by unleashing a long-range strike that sailed over the bar in the 70th. A minute later, he made a cross from the left wing for Walcott, who outjumped Rat to score with a downward header.

   I guess Walcott’s form helps compensate for Giroud’s scoring drought. Although I still don’t understand why the manager lets him take corner kicks. Walcott clearly wastes our corners whereas Ozil could easily send the ball over the head of Giroud or Mertesacker with his pinpoint delivery.

Cazorla getting closer to top form

   In his return from a hamstring injury, Podolski scored his first goal since August. Giroud controlled a high pass from Walcott in the 79th and set up Podolski, who beat Adrian with a first-time effort into the bottom corner for a 3-1 lead. The German forward also came close to finding the net in the 73rd. He beat the offside trap to collect a ball over the top from Cazorla but was denied by Adrian.

   Cazorla is still struggling to rediscover his form. He last scored in the 2-0 win over Liverpool in early November. On the bright side, the Spaniard’s understanding with Ozil is improving and he’s working hard to reach his level from last season. Cazorla pounced on a poor clearance from the West Ham defense in the 16th to head goalward but Adrian cleared the ball off the line. Ozil then set up Cazorla in the 33rd but the Spaniard’s swerving shot sailed over the bar. Cazorla also took a pass from Ozil in the 60th to fire a low drive that Adrian parried. Ozil followed up to convert the rebound but Adrian made a miraculous save with his foot.

Why rotating is necessary

   The Gunners have climbed back to the top of the Premier League with a one-point lead over Manchester City. I guess they will need a victory at Newcastle on Sunday to keep the lead at the halfway stage since the Citizens will host Crystal Palace on Saturday. Holding the top spot after facing the 19 other teams would definitely boost their self-belief and prove some cynics wrong. But one lesson from Thursday’s win over West Ham is that the manager must believe in his squad to have a shot at the title. He needs a bit of rotation to avoid injuries, keep some freshness and allow competition among the players.

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Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

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