16 April 2014

Arsenal 3-1 West Ham: Familiar frailties, fierce fight-back

Despite the importance of the match, Arsenal came out and just looked unable to unlock West Ham, who looked to be more than happy to secure a draw—that is, until a scrappy scrum of a goal in the 40th minute gave West Ham a vital lead going into the half, and it looked like we would be in for another disappointing result, whether it would be an out-and-out loss like the shocker at Stoke or a tepid draw similar to the one we suffered with Wigan. This time, though, there would be no penalty-kicks to bail us out. Turns out, we wouldn't need one, thanks to the ferocity with which we fought back.

See, Andy, there's more to scoring than using your head.
Weary legs from Saturday's two-hour slog led to a sluggish start, and the Hammers' fresh legs had them looking the livelier, and it's little wonder that we held them off as long as we did, Diamé doing his level-best to suggest we again try to sign him again, taking on defenders and spraying shots with abandon and intent. By the time Jarvis headed home after a scuffle in our box, it looked like it would be one of those days: outhustled and outworked, if not outplayed. Whatever momentum we might have created by advancing to the FA Cup final looked to have disappeared under the bludgeoning attack of Carroll, Diamé, and the rest of the Hammers.

However, in the kind of display we haven't seen in weeks, we dug in and found another gear. In short order—about three minutes, give or take—we were on level terms again, thanks to some scrappy play of our own. Giroud, working as hard as ever, forced a rushed pass from deep in the Hammers' corner, and the ball went straight to Cazorla, who zipped a pass into Podolski in the box. Podolski, taking a touch or two to collect himself, promptly lashed a shot at a tight angle to the far corner, and that was that. Instead of going into halftime facing a Hammers side brimming with confidence and ready to sit back to defend a lead, we had bashed right back and seized the game in fine style: pressing, quick passing, clinical finishing. The floodgates, such as they were, had opened.

Ten minutes from halftime, Vermaelen collected a clearance and, from near midfield, lofted a looonng ball back into the box, finding Giroud right at the corner of the six-yard box. His first touch was feather-soft, and he slotted home right through Adrian's legs. It was a nice touch of Giroud to remove and kiss the black arm-band that he and other players wore to honor the Hillsborough 96.

From there, it was almost all Arsenal. Instead of settling for defending a narrow lead, we continued to press forward to find the insurance goal, and it came, perhaps as no coincidence, shortly after Aaron Ramsey came in. He looked bound and determined to make up for lost time, chipping in a fine assist for Podolski in the 78th minute. Credit Giroud again, though, for some fine work that would otherwise count as a second-assist, chasing down the ball in the corner and chipping back across to Ramsey, who headed down into the box for Podolski to unleash that Mjölnir-like left foot, simply blasting the ball at point-blank range past Adrian, who, like Neuer before him, was more likely ducking out of the way rather than attempting a save. It's been a while since we could claim to have roundly beaten a team. I won't quite say we did that today, but it was gratifying to see us run away with one rather than have to chase it.

It was a fine all-around effort; Cazorla was his vintage self, jinking and dribbling and creating like days of old. Giroud was working and producing. Podolski was revitalized. Källström looked capable if not yet comfortable. Can you believe that this is the first time we've won consecutive matches since January? It's been since we beat Fulham back on 18 January and then Coventry on 24 January, a long time indeed. We have five matches left to play, and the reinforcements are on their way. We might have Monreal, Gnabry, and, yes, Özil, back for Sunday's match with Hull. More important perhaps, is a return of the fighting spirit that had gone missing in recent weeks, if not months. How many of us held our heads in our hands after Jarvis's goal and thought, "here we go again. Here's where it all falls to pieces"? It doesn't seem like the players got that message, though. They got right back to the business of winning the game, and win it did. We'll see on Wednesday whether Everton can pick up the gauntlet that we've thrown down. Heck, Crystal Palace owe us. We gave them Chamakh, and our win today means they can get level on points with West Ham in 11th position.

Five matches to go—one of them a pre-FA Cup final check-in with Hull on Sunday.