Arsenal 3-0 West Ham: On What Might Have Been, and Why It Wasn’t

With a tireless Aaron Ramsey feeding off Olivier Giroud’s excellent hold-up play, this performance was almost reminiscent of our table-topping performances of 2013/14.

With West Ham without three of their first choice back-four, Giroud’s powerful hold-up play and deft touch was simply too much for them to handle. Arsenal also benefited from another virtuoso display from Mesut Ozil, who is certainly in the midst of his best run of form since joining from Real Madrid. After the match, Arsene Wenger told Arsenal.com rather emphatically that “Ozil has now adapted”. He took his time, but recent evidence suggests he will prove to be worth the wait.

With Manchester City losing at Burnley later in the day, Arsenal are now just one point off second place.

After the game, the boss was asked if we are now part of the title race:

Not at the moment but we just have to keep going. We’ve won eight of the last nine and we are stronger today than we were at the start of the season. We dropped off in this league because we won one of six at the start of the season. Today we are a different team. We suffered a lot from the post-World Cup fixtures. Players came back and they weren’t ready to play.

He’s right: Arsenal can’t win the title this season because of the disastrous way in which they began the campaign.

With the Gunners now ensconced in third place and looking ahead to an FA Cup semi-final, it’s easy to forget what a tumultuous start to the season it was.

Wenger refers to one win in six, but that record is actually across all competitions. In the Premier League, we won just two of our opening eight games.

That’s dire. Had Arsenal managed to convert draws with Leicester, Everton, and Hull in to wins, we’d currently sit joint-top of the Premier League. Yes, Chelsea would have games in hand, but they’d also have a daunting trip to the Emirates Stadium to come.

The reasons we failed to find our gear are well-documented. There were new players to integrate, injuries to account for and a World Cup hangover to endure.

Intriguingly, Chelsea had plenty of players at the World Cup but started like a house on fire. The other day I read some criticism of Jose Mourinho, suggesting their recent struggles are due to the fact that some of their players were overplayed in the first half of the season. Perhaps so, but when Chelsea eventually stumble over the finish line as champions, it will largely be down to the spectacular way in which they began the season. They built a lead that is likely to prove insurmountable.

Why were they able to start so much quicker? I guess in part due to the availability of key players through their spine — by contrast, the absence of Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud clearly destabilised this Arsenal team. What’s more, we started the season with three world cup winners in the squad. Who knows to what extent their motivation and focus was disturbed by lifting football’s most famous prize?

Anyway, the fact we’re even having this (admittedly somewhat one-sided) conversation is pretty remarkable given how bleak things looked after the November defeat against Stoke. I put much of the optimistic mood down to the win at Old Trafford. Had we lost, we’d be out of the domestic cups and staring glumly down the barrel of a Champions League exit.

Now, we’re dreaming of second place and an unlikely comeback in Monaco. Thanks to the Cup, the glass is half-full.

Arsecast Extra 48: Coquelin, West Ham and a horde of eels

elver-eels2

The latest Arsecast Extra is here to warm your wintry ears, in which we answer the biggest question of all: who is the real villain of The Lord of the Rings?

This Arsecast Extra is brought to you by Audible.com – turns out you can get a free audio book download and a 30 day free trial. Click the banner below to sign up or go to audibletrial.com/arsecast.

You can subscribe to the Arsecast Extra on iTunes by clicking here. Or if you want to subscribe directly to the feed URL you can do that too. To download this week’s Arsecast Extra directly – click here – 40mb MP3. Thanks to Arseblog as ever for the mighty hosting power.

The Arsecast Extra is also available on our SoundCloud channel, where you can leave comments and such, as well as via the SoundCloud app for iPhone and Android. Alternatively, you can find it on the Stitcher podcasting app for iOS and Android.

If I don’t appear here before then, Happy New Year in advance!

West Ham Reaction – Thoughts on Coquelin, Welbeck & Akpom

Well that was fun. After being horribly ill on Boxing Day, I was well enough to attend Upton Park yesterday and had a brilliant day. It’s a proper old-fashioned ground (forgive the cliche), and if you’ve never been I urge you to try and attend in its final season next year. I’ll miss it.

My video blog reaction to the game is directly above, but the real point of this post is to nudge you in the direction of my latest SportLobster blog, which looks in closer detail at questions surrounding Francis Coquelin, Danny Welbeck and Chuba Akpom. If I said the same thing here, I’d simply be repeating myself.

I think I enjoyed this win more than any other this season. That’s largely because it was an enthralling game with a cracking atmosphere, but also because it feels like a significant result: I don’t mind admitting that I was absolutely convinced we’d lose. Andy Carroll is usually like kryptonite for us, but we coped surprisingly well with the aerial onslaught. The Stoke debacle has clouded what’s actually been a very decent run of results.

Southampton next. If we can come back from St. Mary’s with a point or more we’ll reflect on a very merry festive period indeed.

Looking back at the Hammers, ahead to Hull, and up at Liverpool

The win over West Ham was huge. After being put through the wringer in the semi-final, a physical Allardyce team were hardly the ideal opposition. When we fell behind, the collective intake of breath was almost audible.

However, Lukas Podolski’s instant response settled nerves. Goals from Giroud and Podolski again later settled the game. The German’s record is pretty remarkable. His 10 goals this season have come in about 1197 minutes. That’s roughly 13.3 “games”. The figures aren’t distorted by cup goals either. In the Premier League, he boasts a record of six goals in 9.3 games. He is absolutely lethal.

I understand that he doesn’t quite fit in to our system, but our system is hardly pulling up any trees is it? Podolski’s efficiency in the final third is approaching the point whereby it justifies experimenting with a formation that suits him better. It would be intriguing to see how he would get on in a front two, absolved of a degree of defensive responsibility.

A good week got better when Everton lost to Crystal Palace. As an Arsenal fan, it causes me great pain to credit Tony Pulis with a pretty remarkable job down in South London. A positive result away to Hull will put us firmly in the driving seat as far as fourth place is concerned. With Everton still to face the two Manchester clubs, a four-point lead will feel pretty comfortable.

Never mind a four-point lead over fifth: if Liverpool beat Norwich tomorrow, they’ll open up a five-point advantage over the rest of the Premier League.

I can’t be the only Arsenal fan looking at Liverpool and thinking it ought to have been us. If they do go on to win the title, as looks increasingly likely, it will be confirmation that this league was there for the taking. United, City and Chelsea have all had their problems this season. It was a unique opportunity to snatch the big prize, we were in poll position, and we surrendered it.

Yes, they’ve benefited from a lack of European fixtures. But they’ve also built a truly title-challenging team without the lure and financial boon of the Champions League. We had both of those things at our disposal, and yet we’ve failed to match them.

Yes, we’ve had injuries. But we knew about the problems with both Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott well before the close of the January transfer window, and did nothing.

From the first months of the season, it was clear this season presented a unique opportunity for a dark horse to snatch the league. Arsenal fumbled, and Liverpool seem poised to pick it up. We needed to gamble, but in what would become a recurring theme, we lacked the balls.

It’s like Liverpool have been sent to show us what we ought to have done. They’ve invested ambitiously, fought tooth-and-nail to keep hold of their best players, and played with style and courage.

They also, not too long ago, replaced an ageing legend with an upwardly-mobile young manager. Increasingly, I think Arsenal may have to do the same this summer. Regarding Arsene’s future, it suddenly struck me the other day: have we all missed the obvious?

If Arsene is staying, why hasn’t he signed? He’s had ample opportunity to do so throughout the season. If it was a question of PR timing, surely the optimum time to announce a new deal would have been either side of the Christmas period, when Arsenal topped the table?

I can’t remember when it was now, but after one of his contract renewals Arsene spoke about the importance of offering security and certainty to the team. Surely that would have proved beneficial this season, too. And yet the manager has resisted.

A few years back, he spoke about his intention to quit management before retirement age. He’ll be 65 in October. When Arsene said after the semi-final that the result of the final would have no bearing on his future, I immediately felt his mind was already made up. And then much of the above crystallised in a moment of what felt like clarity.

Bacary Sagna hasn’t signed his new deal, and it’s led many of us to conclude that he’s definitely leaving. Apply the same logic to Arsene, and you can only reach one conclusion.

I’m only speculating, and you’re all entitled to point and laugh when Arsene announces his new deal on Monday morning. I just wonder if our heads have been in the sand all season long, when the obvious has been hammering on the ground desperately trying to get our attention.

Anyway. Hull next. Time to tame the Tigers.

West Ham 1-3 Arsenal: Podolski delivers knockout blow on Boxing Day

West Ham 1-3 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This was a thoroughly deserved victory…
Even though the scoreline was 0-0 at half-time, Arsenal were completely dominant. I believe I’m right in saying there was one five-minute period in which we had 85% of possession.

Sam Allardyce was recently on a SKY tv show about football statistics, saying that possession was something of a red herring: goals win games. To a degree, he’s right, but in this match Arsenal were able to strangle Allardyce’s team by keeping a firm grip on the ball. By the end of the game, Arsenal had controlled the possession for 64% of the game, and attempted an incredible 29 shots at goal.

When West Ham took the lead, it was a consequence of an inexplicable individual error from Wojciech Szczesny, who was otherwise commanding. Having fallen behind, Arsenal reeled for five minutes, but soon reasserted their authority.

In truth, anything other than a convincing Arsenal victory would have been a freak result.

Olivier Giroud is short of confidence…
Giroud can’t buy a goal at the moment. Although he screwed an effort woefully wide when put through one-on-one, his lack of self belief was just as evident in his movement as his shooting.

When Giroud’s on top of his game, his off-the-ball running is characterised by anticipatory darts to the near post. However, several times during yesterday’s game Giroud started his run a little late and failed to meet a series of appetising crosses in to the box.

When a striker is firing on all cylinders, everything happens by instinct. At the moment, Giroud’s lack of goals is giving him pause for thought.

The return of Walcott and Podolski is perfectly timed…
Walcott didn’t have his best game yesterday, but he does tend to guarantee goals. His finishing can be erratic, but his pace and movement ensure he will always generate chances. As for the chance he missed in the first-half, I was initially frustrated, but greater reflection has made me rethink. Had Robin van Persie volleyed home that shot from an Alex Song pass, he would have been hailed as a technical wonder.

As for Lukas Podolski, I’m so delighted to see him back. He’s the best finisher in the squad, and enjoyably direct in his style. It’s clear Wenger has reservations about deploying him on the left-wing on a regular basis, but I hope we see a lot more of him in 2014 than we did in 2013.

On to the next one…
Our brief barren run is over, but it’s all about consistency. Next up: St. James’ Park.