Monday, December 29, 2014

Six hard-earned points in three days

For every Premier League club, two games in three days was going to be a tough ask. From an Arsenal point of view, there was greater concern because of the injury problems suffered this season. Despite tired legs and some clear fatigue, the Gunners secured a vital away win against West Ham to move within touching distance of the top four, leapfrogging the Hammers in the process.
Apart from not going down to ten men, the 2-1 victory was very similar to the Boxing Day win over QPR, with Arsenal going 2-0 up before conceding and having to defend for their lives at the end of the game. While Arsenal were unable to do that away to Liverpool, faced with the same situation against QPR and West Ham, there was impressive resilience and commitment from the defence to see the game out.
The job against West Ham was made easier by the presence of Laurent Koscielny, who not only had a good game individually, also had a calming influence on those around him. Per Mertesacker was much better than he has been in recent weeks, and Wojciech Szczesny seemed to have much more confidence in what was going on in front of him to come out and claim some dangerous balls into the box. It was no surprise to see West Ham try and play up to Andy Carroll at every opportunity, but in the main part, Mertesacker and Koscielny nullified his threat well.
West Ham almost fell into their own trap of wanting to expose Arsenal in the air by playing up to Carroll too often, despite Arsenal defending that plan well. One of the main reasons that West Ham have had a good season is because they’ve been able to vary their play more, yet they seemed fixated on going aerial against the Gunners.
With Mathieu Flamini and Francis Coquelin both having quietly effective games in front of the back four, Arsenal had a much more secure base on which to build on. It took a while for Arsenal to get into the match, but when they weathered the early storm from West Ham, the pace and skill of Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck on the break meant the Gunners always carried a threat.
The Spaniard Cazorla was at the heart of everything good Arsenal did going forward, continuing his excellent recent form. Alex Song has been dangerous in more advanced positions for West Ham this season, but he always had to be weary of where Cazorla was, meaning he couldn’t push as far up the pitch as he has done at times for the Hammers this season to play threatening forward passes. Cazorla’s drive to get forward helped win the first half penalty as Winston Reid clumsily took him out in the box. After Alexis’ miss against QPR, there was no way Cazorla would pass over responsibility again, and he duly dispatched the spot kick brilliantly into the bottom corner.
With West Ham feeling victimised over the penalty, despite it being a clear foul, Arsenal took advantage with a quick fire second goal before half time to take control of the game. Good interplay on the right between Debuchy, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain allowed the Englishman to drive into the box and give Danny Welbeck a tap-in for a confidence-boosting goal.
When West Ham grabbed a goal back in the second half, doubts could have crept into Arsenal. Too often this season, whatever the situation in the game, Arsenal have melted after conceding a goal, but led by the classy Cazorla, that didn’t happen on Sunday. But for some fantastic saves from Adrian in goal for the hosts to deny Cazorla, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck and Alexis, Arsenal could have run away with the game before the nervy final moments. Some of the finishing wasn’t clinical enough, but credit to the goalkeeper.
As there were increasing spaces on the break, it was a bit frustrating to see the pace and clinical finishing of Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski on the bench, especially as they’d have fresher legs after not featuring against QPR 48 hours previously, but Arsene Wenger went for solidity at the end by introducing Kieran Gibbs and Calum Chambers, meaning all six of the first-team defenders were on the pitch at the same time at the end of the game. There was one very hairy moment right at the end as Enner Valencia headed over the bar, but with the base of Mertesacker and Koscielny, Arsenal looked much more secure under the late bombardment.
The ending wasn’t pretty, and shouldn’t have happened if Arsenal had been more clinical in front of goal, but it was another sign that lessons from Anfield have been learnt as the scramble defence at the end of the game was committed and effective. Going forward, it was encouraging to see chances being created and to see Cazorla orchestrate the play so beautifully.
With the Premier League’s top seven all dropping points on Sunday, with the exception of the Gunners, it was a vital win to regain ground on the leaders and the top four. Another tough away task at Southampton follows, but with some form and fluidity beginning to return, there’s a sense this Arsenal team are beginning to iron out some of the problems that have plagued this season so far.