26 December 2013

3-1 West Ham: Walcott and Poldi make good

Well, it took a mild thigh-strain to Aaron Ramsey to do it, but the Walcott-Podolski axis devastated West Ham after a tentative start saw the hosts go ahead. After Szczesny coughed up a rebound just a minute into the second half, gifting a put-back goal to Carlton Cole, our freshly-back-from-injury dynamic duo unleashed a volley of sublime passes and shots that put us ahead with two goals from Walcott inside of three minutes, the first assisted by Cazorla and the second, even more impressively, on a sharp header from a Podolski cross. Barely eight minutes passed before Podolski put the match to bed, driving home a nicely laid-off ball from Giroud to settle the scoring at 3-1.

Let's get the unpleasantness out of the way first. Truth be told, Szczesny turned in his worst performance of the season, highlighted by that hiccup on Nolan's shot that led to the Cole goal. Were that all, we could dismiss it as a blip on the radar, just the kind of thing that any keeper will suffer from time to time. However, he failed to learn his lesson when, barely five minutes later, Szczesny failed to handle a similarly tame shot from Matt Jarvis, only to be bailed out by Gibbs's urgent clearance. Minutes later, Szczesny was caught in no-man's land as he came off his line to intercept a cross only to see Cole beat him to it but put the shot wide. This twelve-minute sequence suggested a lack of focus from Szczesny, perhaps borne from the fact that West Ham has struggled to generate goals all season (15 goals in 18 matches) or from the notion that these opportunities came largely against the run of play.

There. That's done and over. We can now move on the good stuff. Keep in mind that, by contrast with other results, we were not tested to the same extent as we've been tested in recent weeks. West Ham is in the drop-zone, after all, not in the mix for European competitions next year (as are Chelsea and Everton) or fighting for progress in it this year (as were Napoli). That said, it was gratifying to see a more-confident, dominant performance even if we did have to wait until the hour to see floodgates open. At the back, Vermaelen showed that he can still bring it, as evinced by his team-leading 11 successful clearances. Despite Szczesny's hiccup, he and Mertesacker showed that they can work together to lock down an opponent. Given Mertesacker's cautionary play, a Kos-Vermaelen rotation could and should become a more regular feature going forward.

Ahead of them, we'll have to look at options as Ramsey limped off in the 65th minute with a thigh-strain. As Arsene said after the match, "the Christmas period is certainly over for him." We'll await testing to see when he'll return, but with Arteta, Flamini, and perhaps even Wilshere available, Ramsey would be due a rest anyway. Arteta showed no lingering effects from Mikel's studs-up tackle on Wednesday, leading the team in passes (87) and pass-percentage (95%) among those with more than 20 passes. Oh, and he led the team in tackles with four. Vintage performance from the man. Flamini? He was there but didn't do all that much. Sorry to give the defensive midfield short-shrift, but the exciting news comes in the attacking third.

First of all, 29 shots taken, eight on target. No, West Ham is not Chelsea, but Allardyce surely took note of how we struggled to take shots during our mid-week snooze-a-thon. Despite the blueprint for "success" that Mourinho offered, West Ham were unable to even approximate a similar level of success as we took more shots in this match than we'd taken in our previous three matches combined. It should come as no surprise that the chief culprits were Cazorla (eight shots, two on target), Walcott five shots, two on target, two goals), and Podolski (four shots, two on target). Podolski, who came on in the 65th minute for Ramsey, was especially lively, adding in that sublime cross for Walcott to head home. Not to be left out, Özil chipped in with eight key passes, more than many midfielders tally all season. It was a welcome return to form for him, and for Walcott, Cazorla, and Podolski, who simply bossed the midfield while decimating the Hammers throughout the second half. Together, they offered a tantalizing glimple, albeit only about 25 minutes worth, of what they can do together. Cazorla may not have scored, but he served notice repeatedly that he can and will shoot from distance, in addition to creating chances for others. Should this kind of form carry forward, and should Arsene find room for all three on the pitch, the results could be devastating indeed. With Poldi's thunderous shots and well-weighted crosses, and with Walcott's pace and increasingly incisive finishing, we might just see an improvement on our status as third-most prolific scoring-side in the Prem.

Last but not least, le buteur du charme. No, he didn't score. However, he did deliver the assist on Poldi's goal, a goal less important to the outcome of the match as it might be to the outcome of future matches. After all, last season saw Poldi and Giroud forge a productive on-field partnership, and their sequence on that third goal suggests that they're ready to pick up where they left off. What's more, he delivered yet another yeoman-like performance, shouldering his way through a thicket of Hammers' defenders to discombobulate and disrupt their formation.

Yes, it was a dominant performance against a squad struggling to escape relegation, but it's also the kind of result that slipped through our grasp in recent seasons, and it stands in nifty contrast to Chelsea's narrow 1-0 win at home over Swansea, Man U's 3-2 win at Hull, Tottenham's 1-1 home-draw with West Brom, or Everton's 0-1 home-loss to Sunderland. Man City's 2-1 win at Anfield might flatter both, and we now have four teams within three points of first place.

We've got a tetchy affair with in-form Newcastle, whose 5-1 win over Stoke flatters them just a bit, coming as it does through two questionable first-half dismissals against the Potters. We'll take a closer look at Newcastle ahead of Saturday's match, but, in the meantime, don't draw any conclusions from their Boxing Day result. For now, sit back and relax in a solid result, one that sends us back to the top of the table.