It was the penultimate match of the first half of the season. After we had had a three-match-streak without a victory, the most important thing was to bounce back as soon as possible in order to keep our wheels on.
West Ham were the perfect opponents to give us the two things we needed: 1) a victory and 2) a rest for some of our best players. However, due to the importance of this game, Arsene Wenger decided to keep 10 out of 11 players who had played every single minute against Chelsea on Monday night. Santi Cazorla replaced Tomas Rosicky in the starting eleven and it might have had something with the Czech’s injury he had picked before the match. The Little Mozart wasn’t on the bench for the match.
Our attacking was pretty good in the first half…apart from the finishing that is. Our movement was eye-catching for some parts of the game and our biggest creative assets – Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil – enjoyed their partnership. Still, it was Aaron Ramsey who created the best chances of the first half but neither Walcott nor Giroud managed to score the opener. In the second half, we conceded an early goal that would have demoralized our team in, say, the 2009-10 season.
This time, however, we put ourselves together and – despite another blow that was Ramsey’s injury – we managed to turn the things around. Theo Walcott scored another brace in an away game and Lukas Podolski celebrated his return to our team with a powerful finish that put the game to bed. We could have scored more than three goals but I’m more fond of three 1:0 victories than one 7:0 thrashing anyway. Here are some of the key pointers from today’s game.
1.Walcott managed another brace.
After he scored twice against Manchester City at the Etihad, the English winger did it again on the road. This time, he scored two past Adrian. In a way, his first goals at the Etihad and the Upton Park respectively were similar in a way – both of them happened thanks to poor goalkeepers’ reactions. However, both of his second goals prove that Theo has been more and more mature every season. At the Etihad, he curled one in the further corner in a way that would have made Thierry Henry proud. At Upton Park, Podolski’s cross got a slight deflection but that didn’t stop Walcott heading the ball home.
Of course, it’s not like his finishing is perfect – he had similar misses against both Manchester City and West Ham. Against the Citizens he could have completed a hat-trick but Pantilimon saved his one-on-one sitter while against West Ham he sent the ball wide. Still, it’s great to know Theo is back. He has scored four goals and created two more after his return.
2.Podolski looks sharp.
Given that Olivier Giroud hasn’t had the best days of his life when it comes to finishing in December, many of us hoped for a quick and successful return of Lukas Podolski. The German has been recognized as the best finisher in the club by Arsene Wenger himself and his lethal left foot was missed in matches against Manchester United, Everton and Chelsea. He took his goal well and was a constant threat to West Ham during his cameo. It’s a great thing given that we need Poldi at his best ASAP!
3.Cazorla enjoyed playing against the Hammers again.
The Spaniard didn’t feature in our previous fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea respectively and it seems that break did well for him. This game also proved that he prefers to play in the middle behind the striker rather than being on the wing. Last season, he scored a wonderful goal with his left foot. This time, he came close to scoring in a similar fashion but his shot went just a bit over the bar. Cazorla’s return to his best will help Özil as well in a way that our opponents will have to watch closely both the German and the Spaniard which is going to be a very difficult task.
4.Aaron Ramsey’s injury shouldn’t make this victory a Pyrrhic one.
The Welshman – who has been our best player and a top scorer this season – picked up an ugly injury that will make him miss our games in the festive period. He made some great passes today as well but none of them were converted by his team-mates (Walcott and Giroud should have scored in the first half) while Ramsey himself made one cross cum shot from a promising position. Despite the influence he has had on our game this season, there might be a silver lining in his absence from the pitch – the Welshman has looked jaded lately and perhaps this was the only way Arsene Wenger could have been persuaded to give Ramsey some rest.
Jack Wilshere didn’t play in any of our fixtures this week so he should be sharp and ready to jump in against Newcastle on Sunday. We are going to have at least two streaks of tough fixtures until the end of the season – Liverpool and Manchester United in space of four days in February with Spuds, Chavs, City and Everton scheduled from the mid-March until the first days of April – and if Ramsey’s injury had to happen, then it’s better that it happened when we have easier matches (if there is such a thing) on the horizon.
5.Kieran Gibbs deserved an assist or a goal.
The English left full-back has been excellent this season. In the last few matches that he has started, he was unlucky not to score or at least grab an assist. He came close to scoring in the first half against Everton, Giroud failed to get anything more than a corner after Gibbs’ perfect low cross against Chelsea and the Englishman should have picked up at least one assist against West Ham as well. It’s encouraging that he bombs down the left though and that he enjoyed playing with Podolski today.
6.History repeats itself.
In 2012-13, we played at Upton Park after we had lost against Chelsea at home. This time, we played against West Ham after we had drawn against Chelsea at the Emirates. Last season, the referee was Phil Dowd and he was assigned for this fixture again. We had conceded first goal of the game both last term and today before we replied with three goals. Our second goal in both matches was scored by Theo Walcott. Unfortunately, we lost a member of the British core to injury in both visits – last season Kieran Gibbs’ injury set the stage for the Andre Santos’ horror-show and this season it’s Aaron Ramsey who was forced to leave the pitch.
7.Giroud needs a goal. Really badly.
Giroud hasn’t scored a single goal since his brace against Southampton. It’s not like he hasn’t had any chance to do that – he should have scored at least twice today – but he was either one step too slow or his shooting wasn’t the best. He did, however, pick an assist for Podolski’s goal but his stats haven’t been the best for some time as he has scored just three goals in 13 appearances. Podolski’s return might be the best thing that has happened to Giroud this season.
So, we won our game against West Ham and Big Fat Sam. Given that Liverpool lost to City, we are back on the top of the table. We will fight to stay there against Newcastle on Sunday and they are just six points behind us.
A victory in that match would mean a lot as Chelsea lost there and Manchester City are yet to visit St James Park. It would be extremely important to win that game because City play at home against Crystal Palace (which the Citizens should win by some margin) while Chelsea and/or Liverpool will drop some points as they play each other.
Frankly, if anyone had said to me that we would stand on top before the last match in 2013, I would have suggested that person have a head exam. Now, we have 20 more laps to go and we start from pole position. It would be nice to stay there until the end, wouldn’t it?