Arsenal 1 – 0 West Ham United
1 – 0 Song (88)
An afternoon where Arsene may have learnt more about his team than a humdinging win. Little doubt that the performance was not at the level of those achieved against Manchester City, Shaktar and Newcastle; West Ham set out to frustrate, waste time and generally make life as difficult as possible. Allied to those tactics, Robert Green stood proud, determined to deny Arsenal in the process of proving his critics wrong.
Despite this, a win was ground out. The players would not have known it but the pressure had cranked up on them five minutes before Song’s late goal; events at Ewood Park had extended Chelsea’s lead at the top to seven points, essentially undoing the good work of wins since Arsenal’s defeat at Stamford Bridge. Criticism of the performance whilst not misplaced is founded on a false assumption. Clubs lower down the division set out to deny Arsenal space and stop them dominating the rhythm of the match; West Ham succeeded to a certain extent, not attacking as they might in the reverse fixture.
Arsenal showed one change from the team which started at Eastlands, Laurent Koscielny had proven his fitness in the win at Newcastle and was restored to the centre of the defence. The weather reflected the changing seasons, an autumnal shower reflected West Ham’s season so far. A promise of brighter things dampened in the end.
The match started evenly, Arsenal dominating possession, the scurrying Arshavin amply involved but there was little end product. West Ham traded punches but found the fist of Fabianski more than a match for anything they had to offer. Much effort by both sides but Arsenal gradually asserted themselves, creating real opportunities giving Green the opportunity to prove his reputation from his younger years might have been built on solid foundations.
The first clear opening fell to Fabregas. Song released Sagna on the right, the full back putting the first of several decent passes into the box. The Arsenal captain launched his effort goalwards but Green collected the ball comfortably. Post match, it transpired that a hamstring problem was besetting the Spaniard, restricting mobility under some half time repair work assisted his movement. The midweek trip to the Ukraine is surely one the captain will miss. At the other end, Noble found Fabianski’s midrift.
The end of the half threatened a breakthrough. Song’s drive was blocked by Green, the chance fashioned following a neat interchange of passes with his captain. Squillaci found space from the resultant corner but Green found the strength in his fingertips to push the ball to safety.
The second half started in a similar vein. Arsenal were barely able to get into second gear but Samir Nasri came closest to breaking the deadlock with a thunderous free kick that rattled the bar before disappearing into the crowd and safety from the visitor’s perspective. The introduction of Theo Walcott with an hour passed gave the attack an injection of pace and urgency. He almost broke the deadlock, racing onto a Fabregas through ball, cracking a shot against the post, the rebound falling into the grateful clasp of Green. With time running out, Green would once more deny Walcott and Fabregas whilst Chamakh will feel he should have scored with a clear opportunity but a poor header denied him the chance to continue his excellent home scoring record.
The breakthrough when it came was from an unlikely source. Clichy found space on the left, strolled into the area and dinked a cross with his right foot. Having sprayed the ball wide with the outside of his boot to start the move, Song continued his run to the far post and guided his header into the net. The relief was tangible, an afternoon’s frustration erupted for this that had not left early.
Three vital points, a credible title challenge emerging on the back of three straight Premier League wins. More importantly, a oft-stated criticism of the squad not being able to win when they play badly was shown to be fallacy.
There were some bright spots for Wenger, most notably Lukasz Fabianski’s continued good form. Whilst Green is being lauded for his saves, the Pole deserves credit for excellent positional sense. Everything West Ham threw at him was comfortably handled, his awareness of where he was making it seem as if shots and headers were straight at him.
Alex Song’s goalscoring form is important; he is enjoying more licence to go forward and displaying confidence in front of goal, releasing some of the pressure on others by scoring. The threat from Arsenal’s midfield has increased as a result. Equally, there was some intelligent supporting play in the second half particularly, from the full backs. It seemed they made better choices with their delivery and whilst it was not always perfect, it seemed they thought more about where their targets were and concentrated rather than peppering the crowd and photographers.
A welcome win that indicates staying power; a win that shows the determination of the players that this time they will walk the walk as they talk the talk.
FA Cup 3rd Round
West Ham United 1 – 2 Arsenal
1 – 0 Diamanti (45)
1 – 1 Ramsey (78)
1 – 2 Eduardo (83)
Two goals in the final twelve minutes turned a looming FA Cup exit into progress and a visit to The Potteries in the 4th round. It was not a vintage performance with the reshuffled Arsenal side seeing plenty of the ball but during the first half, struggling to make telling use of the ball in the final third of the pitch.
Wenger had been criticised for making use of the squad before the match but the defenders chosen were strong and experienced, few options available with Philippe Senderos failing a pre-match fitness test. Elsewhere, an experience gathering exercise was underway, Merida and Ramsey in the midfield with Song whilst Vela played further forward alongside Wilshere and Eduardo.
A largely forgettable first half contained vague threats from Arsenal. Ramsey had a shot deflected over whilst Green was comfortable in saving from Merida and Eduardo. West Ham huffed and puffed, provided sporadic threats but rarely called Fabianski into action in the first half. The Pole was confident in his area, Diamanti bringing out a good save when given too much room by Silvestre.
With the half-time whistle looming, the Italian made a breakthrough. Behrami, West Ham’s best player on the afternoon, put Diamanti through and despite Fabianski getting a hand to it, the shot found the back of the net.
Arsenal stepped up a gear in the second half but in the early stages, West Ham had the clearer opportunities, Stanilas forcing Fabianski to make another excellent stop. Yet with the hour marked passed, Wenger moved to Plan B, introducing Diaby and Nasri into the fray at the expense of Wilshere and Merida. This, with a tiring home defence, invigorated the side, Vela in particular making hay by playing further to the left than previously, stretching the game to Arsenal’s benefit.
Green had to make a double save from Diaby and Song, a warning of the storm about to crash onto West Ham’s shore. It took just over ten minutes for the impact Wenger desired. Song battled his way to the edge of the area, Vela jabbed the loose ball through to Ramsey, the Welshman spinning and firing low across Green and into the net. A well-deserved goal for Ramsey, a much-needed equaliser.
The match was an almost carbon-copy of the visit to Liege, the deficit smaller but the momentum swinging firmly into Arsenal’s favour nonetheless. The winner came with seven minutes to go. Vela delivered a telling cross from the left, Eduardo leapt Salmon-like, to arch the ball past the sprawling dive of Green. 2 – 1 and the myth of how tall centre backs are invincible in English football, Upson rendered impotent by his lack of athleticism in the jump allied with Eduardo’s determination to win the header.
A regular criticism is that Arsenal are unable to close out a game when it matters, a one-goal lead never enough. Yesterday, that lie collapsed, left dazed and bemused in a crushing heap. West Ham were denied time, space, useful possession and penned back regularly in their own half in the remaining minutes. Not having the ball is a problem in trying to retrieve a situation; not being able to get it, a sign that your opponents know what they are doing.
Wilshere and Merida are the scapegoats of the day. They had afternoon’s to forget on the whole; both were off the pace, their lack of minutes on the pitch beforehand showing through. Rectifying that in a short space of time is not going to happen at Arsenal. Loan moves for both would be beneficial in promoting their Arsenal careers.
The Spaniard is of course, being beaten by the stick of his as of yet unsigned contract. Presumably he is waiting for the offers to come in now that he is free to talk to other clubs. Memories of Flamini, to a lesser extent, presumably drive the irrational complaints over his performance, the same people no doubt criticising Wenger for not pushing the player into the first team following his Carling Cup and Champions League performances.
Wilshere on the other hand seemed curiously lax in touch. Confidence drained from him when he made a key defensive error, further seeping away when opting to shoot. It is hard to criticise a player for doing exactly what Arsenal as a team are lambasted frequently for. Both players will learn from the day, using it as a positive influence on their respective careers will be key to that education.
Very real positives came from Fabianski, Ramsey, Eduardo and Vela. Goalkeepers at Arsenal are regularly in the line of fire; Fabianski bucked that trend with a strong performance yesterday, in much the same way that Mannone did earlier in the season when called upon. Eduardo continues to grow in confidence, similarly Vela. Both pulled West Ham across the forward line with a goal doing the Croat’s confidence no harm at all, 3 in the last 4 games for him, a sign that he is recovering his goalscoring form in an injury-disrupted season.
Vela flatters to deceive at times. A question mark over him playing centrally exists at the moment, his slight frame making him tricky to mark but relatively easy to stifle in that position, physically. On the left yesterday, he proved his worth, particularly in the second half. His crossing was excellent, suggesting that he may make more headway in getting regular appearances through that avenue.
But once more, the spotlight falls on Aaron Ramsey, following his dominant performance at Fratton Park with another at West Ham, adding goals into his repetoire increasing his threat. He and Fabregas are similar in many respects but at the moment, the Spaniard’s vision raises him above the crowd. Ramsey can follow suit but on this form, replacing his captain for the short-term is not an issue at all.
Wenger spoke of his envy of Ferguson and United’s cup exit, freeing up a weekend before the second phase of the Champions League. Some mischief in his words no doubt, loosely sprinkling salt into injured United wounds. The headaches he faces are those which managers are supposed to relish; a lot of fixtures and players fighting for places in the squad and an FA Cup 4th round tie to fit into a crowded fixture list, a sign that things are moving in the right direction.