The Gunners put their season back on track with a convincing 3-1 win over West Ham on Tuesday. By ending a poor run of form in which they took only two points from four Premier League matches, they leapfrogged Everton into fourth place and put pressure on the Toffees ahead of their match against Crystal Palace on Wednesday.
Wenger made five changes from the side that knocked Wigan out of the FA Cup on Saturday, replacing Fabianski, Monreal, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo with Szczesny, Koscielny, Kallstrom, Rosicky, and Giroud. Those choices were pretty much shaped by injuries as well as Flamini’s suspension. Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain felt sore and needed some rest, while Gibbs and Monreal joined Wilshere, Ozil and Walcott on the disabled list.
In the first half, Arsenal lacked fluidity in its passing game because of the midfielders’ tired legs and a lack of movement up front. Vermaelen, Kallstrom and Cazorla tried to force plays with long balls that went nowhere. The opening minutes did not look good, especially with a lack of defensive focus similar to the loss at Everton. Diame too easily skipped past Kallstrom in the fifth minute to have a shot blocked by Mertesacker. When West Ham had a throw-in two minutes later, nobody marked Diame, who crossed for Nocerino at the far post, but Vermaelen managed to block the Italian midfielder’s volley.
Kallstrom’s first start
Vermaelen was terrible at Goodison Park, but he produced a decent performance on Tuesday. He got ahead of Carroll in the 18th to head out a cross from Jarvis, who had outpaced Sagna and Mertesacker. Then an unmarked Diame was able to connect with a cutback from Carroll in the 19th but blazed over the bar from eight yards. The Gunners somehow survived those small mistakes. But three defensive errors in the 40th led to the opening goal for West Ham. Nocerino outpaced Kallstrom to shoot from a tight angle. Szczesny made the save, but Koscielny failed to clear the rebound and Jarvis beat Arteta and Sagna to the ball to head home.
Kallstrom was making his first start and sometimes struggled to fit in the team’s philosophy. He made up for a few errant passes with a strong commitment. He’s a defensive midfielder like Flamini but can occasionally turn into a box-to-box player. He led a counterattack in the 11th to release Rosicky down the right flank, but Cazorla could not meet Rosicky’s cross. Kallstrom then played a one-two with Giroud in the 43rd to fire a powerful strike that Adrian parried.
The Podolski enigma
Podolski owed the fans a better performance after his poor display in the FA Cup. He quickly equalized in the 44th following a poor clearance from the West Ham defense. The ball fell to Cazorla, who fed Podolski. The German forward controlled the ball and spun to score with a low diagonal strike from 10 yards. This goal definitely gave the Gunners more confidence for the second half. Podolski also had a curling free kick punched away by Adrian in the 62nd before netting the team’s third goal in the 78th.
Podolski has been a real enigma this season. How can a player with more than 100 caps for Germany be so inconsistent? He may have been brilliant in four or five games but went missing in too many for such an experienced forward. Giroud has already scored three more goals in the Premier League than last season while Podolski is still five league goals below his total from last season.
Giroud coming to terms with his right foot
Giroud can be a very frustrating player to watch for any fan. He was wasteful in the first half, struggling to escape marking and too easily losing possession. Podolski made a good cross in the 14th but Giroud was unable to flick home from close range despite finding space between two defenders. He wasted another good chance when Cazorla intercepted Noble’s pass in the 30th. Giroud beat the offside trap to collect the Spaniard’s through ball but then attempted to beat Adrian with the outside of his left boot while a right-footed shot would have given Giroud a better angle and more power. Adrian had no trouble to save the tame effort from the Frenchman.
After the break, Giroud looked much more like the striker who was efficient in the first half of the season. Vermaelen capitalized on a clearance from the West Ham defense to send a long pass to Giroud. Surrounded by Reid and Carroll, the Frenchman still managed to perfectly trap the ball with his left foot before firing home with his right foot through the goalkeeper’s legs for a 2-1 lead. Giroud was much more spontaneous on that play than when he was denied by Adrian. Smart strikers know that it’s the situation that dictates the shot. When they let their preferences prevail, they usually make the wrong decision and the wrong move.
Giroud also contributed to the team’s passing game with his link-up play. Rosicky played a one-two with Giroud in the 32nd to be clean through on goal but the ball got stuck under his feet and Tomkins won the ball back. Rosicky then led a fast break in the 64th and picked Cazorla out. The Spaniard cut inside to unleash a drive that sailed wide of the far post. Rosicky’s performance on Tuesday was average, but I think it’s important to have him fit so that the manager does not put too much pressure on Ozil and Wilshere when they’ll return.
Ramsey’s contagious desire
Ramsey replaced Rosicky in the 72nd and did not look sharp after emptying his tank against Wigan. Giroud found him on the edge of the box in the 76th but the Welshman fired over the bar. In stoppage time, Ramsey took a pass from Jenkinson and could just hit a tame spinning shot from 18 yards. Ramsey has been sidelined by a hamstring injury for more than three months. So I guess it will take a bit of time before he rediscovers his level from the first half of the season.
But what makes Ramsey such a key player in this team is his desire, which is clearly contagious on the pitch and has a positive impact on the team’s chemistry. The last goal was a great display of one-touch passing. Cazorla found Giroud on the left wing, and the Frenchman made a high cross that seemed to sail behind Ramsey. But the Welshman twisted his body to head the ball toward Podolski, who slammed it into the roof of the net.
Lifting the club’s mood
If the Gunners keep playing like in the second half, with a strong defensive performance and a decent conversion rate, they could win all their remaining matches and finish the season in fourth place. But if they play like in the first half when they wasted a couple of good chances and lacked defensive focus, then Everton will snatch the last Champions League spot.
The return to training of Ozil, Wilshere and Diaby should definitely lift the mood at the club after some disappointing results in the past two months. A less compact schedule, with games every seven days after Sunday’s match at Hull, should also help some exhausted players recover better. Hopefully, Arsenal’s experience will make the difference at the end of the season.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com