Tuesday, December 30, 2014

West Ham 1 Arsenal 2

Arsenal ended 2014 on a high with their second win of the festive period, leapfrogging their opponents to the fifth place, level on points with fourth-placed Southampton. It has been a stop-start season with the Gunners struggling to put more than two wins together, but the hard-fought win brought some optimistic feeling back to the fans.

We were bracing ourselves for a stern test prior to the game. The bookies gave us shorter odds to win this game, but we were not outright favourites. If we can manage to mess up a straightforward game, like a home clash with a QPR side whose away home has been woeful this season, anything could have gone wrong in a game against in-form West Ham, who have already beaten Liverpool 3-1 and Man City 2-1 at Upton Park. The only source of our hopes was the Gunners' excellent stats against the east Londoners. Arsenal have won 10 and drawn 2 in their last 12 Premier League games against West Ham, having won the last 7 games in a row. Upton Park has been the Gunners' happiest hunting ground since the start of the Premier League.

Arsene Wenger made 3 changes to the side that started in a 2-1 win over QPR less than 48 hours ago. The team welcomed a fit-again Laurant Koscielny, which meant that Nacho Monreal moved to his more familiar left-back position as Kieran Gibbs started on the bench. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was passed fit to play on the right wing, coming into the side for Olivier Giroud, who started his 3-match ban after mindlessly headbutting Onouha in the last game. Francis Coquelin was given his first league start since January 2013 to replace Tomas Rosicky, who impressed in the game against QPR. Wenger revealed that Rosicky had cramps in the calves and hamstrings when he was replaced in the 83rd minute of the QPR game. As a result, Little Mozart was given a full recovery day. On the bench, David Ospina, Lukas Podolski, Joel Campbell, Calum Chambers, Theo Walcott, and Chuba Akpom occupied other places.

The boss admitted that he took a gamble on handing Coquelin a start. Rotation was inevitable in the busy Christmas schedule, but balance was the key. The deployment of the young French midfielder alongside Mathieu Flamini looked a little bit too conservative, but it was Wenger's tactics to give extra protection for the back four against West Ham's aerial threats. West Ham have been impressive this season with their free-flowing football and the change to more attractive style won back their fans' support for Sam Allardyce. However, Wenger's tactics were spot on this day as Big Sam had decided to adopt his old Bolton-style approach against us.

Talking about tactics, the fans' opinions were divided on Wenger's defensive-minded substitutions for the last 3 games in a row. After the Liverpool game, in which 3 defenders and 2 defensive midfielders could not help stop the Mersey-side team equalising from a set-piece in stoppage time, we expected Wenger might think twice on holding onto a narrow lead by bringing on more defenders. On contrary, the Frenchman resorted to the same tactics against QPR once we went down to 10 men. We ask ourselves if Theo Walcott and/or Lukas Podolski might have given us a goal that would have relieved all the pressure in these games, especially when we looked so dangerous on the break even with 10 men.

The significant moment of the game was arguably ex-Gunner Alex Song's disallowed goal. The assistant referee deemed one of the three West Ham players who were in off-side positions, namely Andy Carroll, to have obstructed Szczesny's view. As none of those West Ham players did not seem to have touched the ball, West Ham supporters and Sam Allardyce alike were extremely unhappy with the decision, however if a player lets the ball go through his legs he is in effect 'playing' the ball. We must say that we were lucky in that the linesman took the view that he did in this case as it does not always happen. That said, the decision was perfectly legal and the fact that Szczesny did not move at all backs the linesman's reasoning.

We had to endure another tense ending to a game as the scoreline stayed 2-1 for as long as 40 minutes, but Arsenal stood firm defensively for the majority of time. It was a pity that they allowed West Ham to score just after Per Mertesacker expertly cleared the ball under the pressure from Andy Carroll. On the attacking side, it was Arsenal who had better chances. Like against QPR, they created so many chances on the counter-attack, but finishes left a lot to be desired or wrong decisions were taken on the final ball at times, while on a few occasions, Adrian pulled off amazing saves. Santi's penalty in the 40th minute was virtually our first shot on target, but we managed 8 shots on target throughout the game.

The stats paint a totally different picture to Arsenal's typical games. Arsenal's dominance in possession was absent in this game with a mere 42% possession. Their passing success rate was also meagre at 65%, bringing down their average rate in the Premier League to 84.1%. After the match, Wenger admitted that you have to sacrifice your creativity for physical battles at times as it is a part of English football. His side coped well with West Ham's long-ball approaches. In his post-match interview, Santi Cazorla emphasised the importance of winning the second ball, which appeared to have been Wenger's instructions. Each player knew their part and played it well as a unit.

After the well-deserved 2-1 victory, Arsenal are just outside the Champions League spot with only the goal difference keeping them out of it. 6 points from the Christmas period is not a bad return, considering that Van Gaal blamed fixture congestion during the festive period for his players' lack of sharpness after Manchester United's goalless draw with Tottenham.

Games come thick and fast at this time of the season. Arsenal will face 4th-placed Southampton on New Year's Day. The game offers a great chance to climb the table, but it is going to be another tough test.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 7
Unusually came out to claim the ball on every opportunity. Failed to get the ball on only one occasion towards the end, but did well overall. Helped the defence immensely. On the other hand, his 26.5 % passing success rate indicates poor distribution, which is something he has to improve on.

Dubuchy: 7
Lower ratings have been seen for him because 
he was out-jumped by Kouyate and had a hand (or head) in the West Ham goal, but he put in a very combative display overall. Andy Carroll's elbow in the early stages of the game did not stop him playing. Combined with the Ox well at times to pose a threat going forward.

Mertesacker: 7
A lot more courageous display from a much-maligned defender. Made 4 tackles 3 interceptions and 9 clearances. On the other hand, poor passing (72.7% accuracy) from a normally assured passer.

Koscielny: 7
Glad to have him back. His 52.5% passing accuracy was shocking, though, even considering the pressure he went under.

Monreal: 6

Flamini: 6
Did OK.

Coquelin: 7
Made 4 tackles and 4 interceptions. As Wenger said, he faded in the last 20 minutes, but he put in a decent performance overall.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 8
Provided an assist for Welbeck's goal with a pin-point low cross. He was dangerous on the break.

Cazorla: 8

Pulled the strings at the heart of Arsenal attack. He was the most creative player in the entire Premier League on this day with 8 key passes. Made no mistake from the spot after earning a penalty. Had 4 shots, 3 of which were on target.

Sanchez: 7
Usual hard working self, but not his best game. Had 7 shots, of which only 1 was on target.

Welbeck: 7
It was good to see him back on the scoresheet, but he could have scored 2 more goals. One attempt was denied by Adrian's superb save, while he blasted high when he only had Adrian to beat after gifted a loose ball.


Gibbs: 6
Replaced Welbeck in the 83rd minute.

Chambers: 6
Replaced the Ox in the 90th minute.

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